Conservative confusion continued: the lessons of No Child Left Behind

As threatened, I wanted to return to Rick Hess’s analysis of conservative divisions – and disarray – on the future path of education reform, focusing this time on his analysis of No Child Left Behind.

Actually, NCLB provokes less conflict  and creates less confusion than it probably should. The law is vilified from the far left to the far right of the political spectrum, and almost everywhere in between. But what does NCLB really teach us? That the federal government should get out of the education business? That standards should be jettisoned? That the federal government should loosen its purse strings  . . . or tighten them?

Rick Hess reminds us of NCLB’s history, and offers some suggestions about where it went wrong:

As governor of Texas, George W. Bush had continued a bipartisan commitment to standards-based accountability that helped focus attention and resources on at-risk students and low-performing schools. Campaigning for the presidency, Bush pledged to bring these principles to Washington, and to create a more muscular role for the federal government in education. His message played well; in his contest with Al Gore, polling showed Bush virtually eliminating the huge, longstanding Democratic advantage on education.

The problem, however, was that conservatives had not given much thought to how Bush’s education vision would actually translate into federal policy. Days after taking office, Bush made good on his promise, sending a 28-page blueprint for federal education reform to Congress. The original plan reflected a reasonably coherent conservative vision: transparency, testing and accountability, parental choice, a commitment to rigorous educational research, and opportunities for states to experiment with teacher compensation and regulatory reform.

But the No Child Left Behind Act had to get through Congress. Democrats Edward Kennedy and George Miller, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate and House education committees, respectively, insisted upon major additions. These included, for instance, the onerous new “highly qualified teacher” mandate requiring that all classrooms be led by a teacher with appropriate paper credentials. This language would later be used by teachers’ unions and their left-wing allies to attack programs like Teach For America.

Nevertheless, the Bush administration, seeking bipartisan backing for its marquee policy initiative, went along with these modifications. So did conservatives, eager to support the new Republican president and distracted by the “conservative” label affixed to NCLB’s accountability requirements (such as the law’s requirement that states regularly test students in reading and math and report the scores). As a result, conservatives ended up embracing a law that super-sized Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society-era Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Perhaps most famously, NCLB mandated that 100% of the nation’s children be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014 — though the law left it up to states to define what proficiency meant. If schools and districts did not make the prescribed annual progress toward that goal, they would face federally mandated consequences. The result was the mother of all perverse incentives, with governors and legislators who were committed to rigorous standards rewarded with a guarantee that more of their schools would be deemed “failing” and subjected to federal micromanagement.

In practice, the law proved to be a mess. For instance, it did not stop at the sensible step of requiring states to disaggregate and report student-achievement data by socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity. Rather, NCLB imposed an explicitly race-based system of accountability, labeling schools as “failing” if particular demographic groups did not make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP). This focus on closing racial “achievement gaps” forced states to label many reasonably performing schools as “failing,” puzzling and infuriating parents and educators. Moreover, the consequences for failing to make AYP were written into federal law, with mandated “remedies” including everything from busing students to new schools to state takeovers and school closures. The desire to avoid labeling schools as failing created great incentives for gaming the system: States responded by dumbing down tests and lowering the bar for students to be deemed “proficient.” When schools did fail to make AYP (as nearly half the nation’s schools did in results reported this spring), implementing the required remedies ultimately relied on the competence of the very same local leaders who were being sanctioned.

Not surprisingly, state officials quickly soured on NCLB. By the summer of 2006, 19 states had filed suit charging that NCLB was an unfunded mandate, prohibited the use of state funds for NCLB implementation, or were still considering legislation to opt out of NCLB altogether. In 2007, Republican congressman Pete Hoekstra attracted 64 GOP co-sponsors in the House, and Republican senator Jim DeMint drew seven in the Senate, for legislation that would have allowed states to opt out of NCLB and still receive federal education dollars. The public’s opinion of NCLB had initially been modestly positive, but by the close of the Bush administration sentiment was tipping the other way.

Okay, so what do we learn from this depressing history? I’ll turn to this in my third and final post on this topic.

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