Federal Commentary

The Contentious ‘No Child’ Law I: Who Will Fix It? And How?

By Larry Cuban — March 17, 2004 5 min read
Even No Child Left Behind's champions know in their souls that the law must change.

That the federal No Child Left Behind Act is in serious disrepair as the nation’s premier educational law in a generation goes without saying. Educators, GOP state leaders, governors, Democratic Party candidates for president, suburban parents, and former supporters ridicule the law’s anemic funding and intrusive rules that label schools as failures for not achieving “adequate yearly progress.” President Bush, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, loyalist Republican supporters, and many urban school boards and administrators staunchly defend the law’s accountability provisions and its assumption that poor children can achieve high academic standards. Yet even No Child Left Behind’s champions know in their souls that the law must change. The questions are: Who is going to fix it? How can it be fixed?

Before I lay out those changes, note the parts of the law that both critics and boosters like. Both sides agree on the importance of academic standards and that some tests are essential to measure progress toward those standards. Moreover, they concur that test scores should be displayed by ethnic, racial, non-English-speaking, and special education groups. Finally, both opponents and advocates want qualified teachers in schools with predominantly poor minority children. Beyond these items of agreement, however, discord reigns.

Before November, little will change. What about after the election? Here are some possible scenarios for 2005. Each one assumes, however, two conditions: First, that for the next five years a growing federal deficit will crimp funding for the No Child Left Behind law and, second, that the current U.S. secretary of education—a robust cheerleader for the law but politically ineffectual with Congress and state and local policymakers—will be replaced.

If President Bush is re-elected and a GOP-dominated Congress stays in place, state and local officials will move the administration to fine-tune regulations while making no substantial changes in funding, testing, the “adequate yearly progress” requirement, and the labeling of schools as failures. Unrest in the states over a trickle of federal dollars, and mounting scorn from local boards of education over so many schools being declared lousy, will increase noncompliance and prod states to tinker with test scores to reduce failure rates.

If President Bush is re-elected and Democrats regain control of one or both houses of Congress, legislators and the president will keep funding steady and make minor changes in the law, particularly in reduced testing and adjustments in the adequate-yearly- progress requirement. Federal officials will wink at stepped-up state and local noncompliance.

If President Bush is defeated, accelerated state and local disregard of the No Child Left Behind requirements will lead to major changes in the law (without increased funding), except for its provisions on qualified teachers, retaining some tests (even moving toward a single national test), and continuing to display scores of different groups of children.

I cannot predict which of these scenarios is most likely, but I can say that none of the above changes will either fix the law or substantially improve U.S. schools. Why?

Even if more money were forthcoming under a Republican or Democratic administration—and it won’t be—additional dollars could not fix the law. The federal government spends about 7 cents out of every education dollar, nowhere enough money to fix broken schools. What needs to change is wholesale federal inspection of state and district operations of schools and the assumptions driving the law.

It is time to recognize that limited federal dollars and nit-picking intrusiveness will hardly solve urban school problems.

The No Child Left Behind legislation was sold as a cheap national cure—a 7 percent solution—for all public schools. But it was really aimed at largely poor, urban, and rural children. The now-shattered promise of more money to states means that shame—naming failing schools—has become the federal weapon of choice to coerce higher performance from students, teachers, and principals. The No Child Left Behind law has foundered on trying to improve the nation’s worst schools with pennies and sledge-hammer tactics, as if dispirited schools could, alone, transform their students through a combination of sheer will and good intentions. They cannot.

Nonetheless, parts of the federal legislation can, and should, be salvaged. The symbolism of helping children escape poverty to enter the middle class, holding educators accountable for the academic performance of minority children, and concentrating on getting more competent teachers into urban schools is too important to be dumped. What should be done? Here are some suggestions:

  • Drop the annual testing of every child in grades 3-8. Identify a national test using large samples of children (rather than testing every child) to complement state tests in determining academic proficiency.
  • Scrap “adequate yearly progress,” but maintain the practice of displaying state and national scores by ethnic, racial, and non-native- speaking categories. The phrase “adequate yearly progress” (and the sloppy technology enforcing it) has become a nightmare for parents and educators, one that mislabels schools and undercuts states’ progress in holding districts accountable.
  • Increase federal oversight of and funding for teaching quality in urban schools. If ever an issue cried out for federal intervention, bolstering the urban teacher corps is it. Earlier efforts to introduce a National Teacher Corps (1967-1981), scholarships and loan forgiveness for college graduates teaching in low-income schools for at least five years, and other innovative approaches, including a domestic Peace Corps of certified teachers, could become central to a redesigned No Child Left Behind Act.

Will any of this occur? Much depends upon the November national election and which political party controls the White House and Congress. But no matter which party prevails, it is time to recognize that limited federal dollars and nit-picking intrusiveness will hardly solve urban school problems. And that the No Child Left Behind law’s few virtues are worth salvaging in 2005 from the firestorm of criticism and ridicule that now surrounds it.

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