If put in front of a focus group today, the title of the nation’s top K-12 education law would be met with the kind of enthusiasm reserved for day-old cafeteria pizza.
Congress may still be arguing about what provisions of the current law should be extended and which should be axed. But educators and politicians appear to agree on at least one thing: The outdated No Child Left Behind Act needs a fresh brand.
What, though, should replace “NCLB,” which has been around since 2001, as a catchy tag for the next version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act? And how much does it matter?
“A name is one piece of a puzzle, and it’s an important piece of a puzzle, because it’s a hook,” said Sasha Stack, a partner in the Boston-based strategy group at Lippincott, a branding firm that counts companies like Southwest Airlines and Samsung among its clients.
“There is obviously a lot more that goes into building a brand,” said Ms. Stack, who leads Lippincott’s naming team. "[There’s] messaging that supports it and the tone of voice that you’re acknowledging something with, and obviously the facts you have to support it. But a name becomes that memorable thing that people latch on to.”
Not convinced? Think about it this way: Try searching the Federal Register for the “Obamacare Act.”
For better or worse, people did latch on to the No Child Left Behind brand, invoking its message in often-heated rhetorical terms.
To its critics, the law’s name offered a promise the nation hasn’t kept.
“Children across America are sitting for eight to 10 hours of tests every spring and spending weeks to prepare for them. Testing companies are raking in billions. Schools have been closed because of their scores,” wrote Diane Ravitch, the prominent education historian, in The New York Times in February, citing examples of what she sees as the law’s shortcomings.
And supporters of the law, who look at its successes in doing things like collecting disaggregated data on students, recognize that there’s too much baggage to see the brand continue.
“For voters, it became synonymous with bad standardized tests,” said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, the director of social policy and politics at Third Way, a centrist think tank based in Washington. “For people in the education community, it became synonymous with unreasonably high standards and not enough flexibility.”
Others see the name as a reflection of an outdated philosophy.
“Now, it’s not just about making sure children aren’t left behind; it’s more about making sure every child has the opportunity to succeed in the classroom,” said Alexandra Sollberger, a vice president for the Podesta Group, who previously served as communications director for U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee.
Congress was supposed to renew the NCLB act in 2007, but amid political shifts it has been unable to do so. None of which helps solve the marketing conundrum.
As a GOP Senate aide working on renewing the law said: “As long as we pass a bill and fix the flaws of No Child Left Behind, we can call it the Ham Sandwich Act.”
The Current Brand
Congress first passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act 50 years ago as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Like many bills in that era’s far-reaching wave of federal legislation—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and others—the Elementary and Secondary Education Act had a straightforward name containing all the dazzle of store-brand Cheerios.
As Congress works to reauthorize the nation’s main K-12 statute, it also needs to come up with a name for the revised statute. Whatever version eventually passes would likely include provisions on accountability, data, equity, and school funding, making the branding puzzle even tougher.
Though modified in bits during the course of several reauthorizations, the ESEA largely remained the ESEA until 1994, when Congress gave it a hip new attitude: the Improving America’s Schools Act.
In 2001, as Congress worked through the next ESEA reauthorization, President George W. Bush threw his support behind the phrase “no child left behind,” having adopted it while governor of Texas from the Children’s Defense Fund’s “Leave No Child Behind” campaign. The U.S. House of Representatives used the moniker on its version of the reauthorization, eventually winning out over the Senate’s blander Better Education for Students and Teachers Act (or, the BEST Act).
New and Improved?
A current top contender to replace the NCLB moniker is the Student Success Act, in the House.
In the Senate, Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has draft legislation called the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act of 2015. But as of late last week, that bill was still being negotiated by Mr. Alexander and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairman and ranking minority member, respectively, of the chamber’s education committee.
“From a functional standpoint, one of the first things you want to think about is that a name be concise,” Ms. Stack, of Lippincott, said. “It’s much easier for people to remember things that are clear and intuitive and can’t be easily truncated.”
She also recommends that a brand have some dynamism—the ability to stay relevant should policies shift—and that it stand out.
A name should show some optimism, too.
“You want the name to feel forward-looking and aspirational and positive,” Ms. Stack said. “I think the current name was emphasizing the negative.”
As for acronyms: No.
“We actually think acronyms are not great things,” Ms. Stack said, “because then people know it by the acronym, but they don’t know what the acronym means.”
Here’s a test: What does PARCC stand for? Even if you live in a PARCC state, you might not remember the full name of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, one of two major federally funded consortia designing tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Smarter Balanced, the other big assessment consortium, used to use an acronym, too. That clearly did not work out.
And do you know what ACT stands for? SAT? AASA? ASCD? All of them used to go by full names. Think about corporate and other shorthand encountered on a more frequent basis: IBM, CBS, CVS, ZIP codes. Here’s another fun one: laser. (It used to be LASER. Look it up.)
According to cognitive psychologist George A. Miller’s seminal 1956 paper on working memory, the human brain is capable of remembering, on average, seven objects, give or take a couple.
The Every Child Ready for College and Career Act of 2015 is an 10-item mouthful that might reduce to something along the lines of ECRCCA. It’s memorable, in the way someone would remember watching grass grow.
Ms. Hatalsky, of Third Way, said acronyms can be an asset, though: Maybe it would be better for people just to remember that a lengthy bill name boils down to “SUCCESS.”
What about going retro? Everyone likes a good throwback reference.
“I think everyone can agree that ‘Elementary and Secondary Education Act’ doesn’t tug at the heartstrings or have a lot of meaning to the average family,” Ms. Sollberger said. “But the idea of putting together a law that’s going to be designed, at its core, to promote success among every student at every school is certainly something I think would resonate with parents and teachers and school leaders.”
Among the names now in contention, the Student Success Act may have the optimism and alliteration that people can get behind.
“It’s not necessarily saying what the success is, but that might not be a bad thing if you don’t want to feel overly narrow in your scope,” Ms. Stack, the branding expert, said.
The branding discussion might be premature, of course. First, at least one house of Congress has to hold a successful vote. Then, eight years after deadline, it needs to get something on the president’s desk.
Afterward, Congress can get around to rebranding Congress.
Library intern Maya Riser-Kositsky provided research assistance.
A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as Rebranding NCLB Law a Tough Marketing Task