Well before he became president, George W. Bush had made his education plan, the No Child Left Behind Act, the showcase of "compassionate conservatism" -- meaning, in the conventional shorthand, a conservative route to liberal ends. Its objective was to force schools to close the huge racial achievement gaps in American education, to pay attention to the poor and minority kids they had so often neglected, and to make every child "proficient" in reading and math by the year 2014. The law's name itself was a rip-off of "Leave No Child Behind," the longtime rallying cry of Marian Wright Edelman's Children's Defense Fund. When Bush signed the legislation in January 2002, two liberal Democrats, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy and California Rep. George Miller, were the co-stars of the White House photo-op.
But in the past two years, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) -- formally just an extension of the Johnson-era Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, but in practice probably the most sweeping nationalization of school policy in the nation's history -- has left a lot behind, including no end of confusion, uncertainty and resentment.
The law itself, the administration's failure to fund it as promised, and the uneven and sometimes incomprehensible way it's been managed by the U.S. Department of Education have begun to generate so many difficulties and so much backlash, particularly among state legislators, that the program could well implode and take down two decades of state educational reforms with it. In the process, it would also end the best hope -- all the law's difficulties notwithstanding -- that America's poor and minority children have for getting better schools, higher standards and the attention they deserve.
The law's basic objectives were simple:
• Create an accountability system of tests, graduation rates, and other indicators that would force individual schools and districts to make adequate yearly progress by raising not only school-wide test scores but the achievement levels of every major subgroup of students -- African Americans, Latinos, English-language learners, low-income students, special-education students -- to a state-defined level of proficiency. Schools that don't make such progress two years running for each group in each subject and grade are to go into "Program Improvement," which triggers an escalating set of sanctions and "interventions," ultimately including a state takeover until the school again makes its adequate yearly progress targets.
• Require schools and districts to issue annual "report cards," which would provide data on the performance and quality of each school. Children in low-performing schools would be allowed to transfer to better schools (for which the district must provide transportation), and extra help would be provided for those who needed it. At heart, it meant that kids wouldn't remain trapped in the nation's most horrible schools. Bush wanted private-school vouchers; the public-school transfer provision is what he got.
• Provide the necessary resources, including "highly qualified teachers," in every classroom by 2005-06. To fund those reforms, Bush agreed to a 27 percent boost in Elementary and Second Education Act funding, to $22 billion in the first year and more in the years thereafter.
All told, it was an agenda that seemed as noble as it was political.
But the law wasn't simple, and because its provisions were often laid on top of various state testing and accountability systems, it made things more complicated still. California, for instance, already reported each year's test scores in grades 2-11, scores on its high-school exit exam and each school's test-based Academic Performance Index. In addition, there are the periodically reported state breakdowns of scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the national sampling of educational achievement in major subjects, sometimes called "the nation's report card."
NCLB now also requires annual reporting of adequate yearly progress, plus an alphabet soup of other goals and criteria. As a consequence, parents and the public in many states receive a torrent of numbers purportedly rating school performance, few of them entirely consistent with the others and many wildly different. As Michael Cohen, who heads Achieve Inc., a business-backed group promoting higher school standards, told Education Week, there's "massive confusion, owing to the stapling together of state and federal accountability systems, and pretending we have one system."
To make things more confusing still, in the tortured political compromises between national requirements and state prerogatives that Congress was forced to make to pass the bill, it produced a law that was at once too rigid and meaninglessly flexible. It required schools to ensure that every student achieve "proficiency," yet it allowed the states to set their own proficiency standards and, within general limits -- a four-year undergraduate degree, a teaching credential, subject matter knowledge -- to write their own definitions of what makes a highly qualified teacher. Thus, while Michigan reported that some 1,500 schools (40 percent of all the state's public ones) failed to make their adequate yearly progress goals in 2000-01, Arkansas and Wyoming, with lower proficiency standards, reported none. And while some states reported that more than half their teachers weren't highly qualified -- Utah reported last year that only about a third of its teachers were "fully highly qualified" -- others declared that every teacher in every classroom was. And because NCLB imposes costly remedial requirements on districts with large numbers of what are officially called underperforming schools, it creates strong incentives for states with high standards to lower them.
What makes those incentives particularly intense is that in its well-meaning attempt to make sure that no school could pass muster unless every major subgroup became proficient in reading and math, Congress created very high hurdles for many schools and districts. It meant, as many school officials vehemently complained, that some of the most highly regarded schools were suddenly in jeopardy of being labeled low performing. If a school tests less than 95 percent of its children and less than 95 percent of all major subgroups in every grade -- meeting those numbers is itself a huge challenge, especially in high schools, where even a 90 percent attendance rate is extraordinary -- and if any of those subgroups fail to make progress in both reading and math in any two succeeding years, the school and its staff get a black mark and go through a federally mandated shape-up program. The principal and teachers are then subject to reassignment after four years.
If making the grade is statistically tough for many schools with lots of minority students, it's almost impossible in schools with large numbers of students who arrive speaking little English. Worse, for English learners, there's a catch-22: Because those who become proficient in English -- and thus do well on tests -- are "redesignated" as "English proficient," their numbers are no longer counted in the English-learner category. California and Illinois have gotten waivers allowing them to continue to count English-learning students for three years after redesignation. But that solves only part of the statistical problem, because any school that has a rising percentage of English-learning students, as many have, will never be able to show progress in that category. "It feels like you're being set up," said a veteran school administrator and federal official who is now a superintendent in a large city with a mushrooming immigrant population.
Until the federal government granted districts more flexibility in December 2003, the situation was even more surreal for special-ed students, who were being given the same tests as regular students even though they are so designated precisely because many can't manage the pace of the normal program.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration is largely ignoring the law's requirement that states get qualified teachers into those schools that are getting extra funding to serve their large numbers of children from low-income families. Many districts try to honor the law's intent, but its mandate that districts put a "highly qualified" teacher into every classroom was always a little like King Canute commanding the waves to stop. Worse, despite pleas from some of NCLB's strongest supporters, the government isn't enforcing even those provisions of the law that require states to report on the qualifications of teachers at such schools. This "conspiracy of silence," says the Education Trust, a private group that's been a longtime advocate for the education of poor and minority children and that supports NCLB, has made that requirement nearly meaningless.
The law's mandate that students in low-performing schools be allowed to transfer to better ones has also been honored more in the breach than in practice. In many districts, particularly in rural areas, there are no convenient alternatives. In others, the schools to which students might transfer are already overcrowded. But most often, parents prefer to keep their children in neighborhood schools, regardless of the school's performance. Of the 250,000 Chicago students eligible for choice slots in August 2003, for example, 19,000 applied and fewer than 1,100 were placed in other schools.
If you listen to state legislators from both parties, however, the most frequent complaint is the administration's failure to honor its funding commitments. While the White House argues that school funding is up, current year appropriations for NCLB fall $8 billion short of what was authorized by the bill. "We were all suckered into it," said Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), who voted for the measure. "It's a fraud."
The underfunding complaints are accompanied by studies indicating that the states' costs of meeting NCLB requirements are running far beyond the money that the federal government is providing. In what's probably the most frequently cited report, published last year in Phi Delta Kappan, William J. Mathis, a Vermont school administrator, concluded that in seven of the 10 states he surveyed, school spending would have to increase 24 percent to comply with all the requirements of NCLB. According to Mathis, Texas, the largest of the states studied, would have to spend $6.9 billion more, roughly doubling the state's school budget. "We're being asked to do more with nothing," said Bob Holmes, who chairs the Georgia House Committee on Education.
Mathis' estimates are controversial: Parsing out real NCLB cost figures is a squishy process. But there's no doubt that at a time of extremely tight state budgets, the law has, said one school superintendent, made everybody crazy. In a survey of principals and superintendents published late in 2003, Public Agenda found that nearly 90 percent regarded NCLB as an unfunded mandate. More than 60 percent said NCLB "will require many adjustments before it can work"; 30 percent said it probably wouldn't work at all. Most significantly, perhaps, the Public Agenda report noted "a noteworthy discrepancy between what NCLB calls for in terms of 'highly qualified' teachers and what superintendents and principals say they need from new teachers." Among those qualifications: the ability to maintain order and discipline in the classroom, to work with students whose background is different from their own and to establish working relationships with parents.
All of that has generated increasing levels of backlash. In at least three states -- Minnesota, New Hampshire and Hawaii -- legislators passed or seriously debated resolutions urging those states to withdraw from NCLB even though it means losing the federal money that's tied to it. Otherwise, said a Hawaii Democrat, NCLB is "going to label a lot of excellent schools as failing." In Oregon, Gov. Ted Kulongoski was said to be considering joining up with the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, in a suit challenging the law as an unfunded mandate.
In most states, however, there's a subtler strategy. Some have lowered their proficiency benchmarks to make their numbers look better. Among them are Michigan, which claimed it really was just making its system more realistic and comparable to other states, and Colorado and Texas, which lowered the passing score on their own tests to reduce the failure rate. Because standards vary so widely, eighth-grade students labeled proficient in Wisconsin are ranked in the 89th percentile in one national survey; a proficient ranking in Montana puts you in the 36th percentile. More pervasive still: Because NCLB says all students must be proficient by 2014, some states have drawn -- and the federal government has approved -- their expected lines of progress so that the biggest required gains are deferred until further out, when they rise steeply toward what's been described as a balloon payment (and when, presumably, most of today's governors, state superintendents and legislators are gone).
Not surprisingly, NCLB is reinforcing the wave of adequacy lawsuits filed by students, community activists and local districts, demanding that states provide resources adequate to the standards and high-stakes tests they've imposed. If students who fail exit exams are denied diplomas, or if teachers and administrators face sanctions for failing to meet standards, the state presumably has a commensurate legal and moral responsibility to provide the resources to allow them to succeed. A recent adequacy decision in Kansas, which ordered that state to restructure its funding, explicitly cited NCLB; so have new suits filed by school districts and others in Nebraska, Missouri and North Dakota.
More broadly, the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has been warning that cash-strapped states are being squeezed by their own standards, the NCLB mandates and the threat of further lawsuits. Two years ago, said David Shreve, who tracks No Child Left Behind for the NCSL, the reaction to the bill was "very positive." Then, as now, most state officials supported the testing and accountability principles; some even said NCLB was giving them "a needed kick in the butt," as Shreve put it. But after the political costs of the long and extended battles in many other places to get all constituencies behind the states' own accountability plans -- parents, the business community, teachers and administrators -- many states, Shreve said, don't want to go through the process of getting their various constituencies to support another accountability system. And while the federal mandates were designed to create a single standard, what they've done is create enough confusion among different accountability measures that it could "cause the public to sour on the whole thing."
To compound the problem, neither Congress nor the administration is disposed to address the issues before the 2004 election, if then. Bush hopes to run on NCLB and doesn't want any high-profile debate about it in the meantime. And so the administration has sent out a parade of Education Department officials to laud the law as a perfect gem, to argue that funding is ample, and to brand as whiners those who want to send poor and minority kids back to what Bush called "the soft bigotry of low expectations." "For the last 25 years," said Assistant Education Secretary Laurie Rich, a veteran Texas Republican operative, at an NCSL meeting last year, "we've tried to solve problems with money alone." It was time, she said, to do something else.
From the start, the NCLB debates have echoed the classic American ambivalence about how much schools alone can be expected to do in closing historic achievement gaps and overcoming social and cultural disadvantages. But it has also had political overtones all its own: the belief, by some on the right, that people like Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) signed on only to leverage more money from the federal government and would be happy to let the accountability system fade away; and the belief, in some circles on the left, that NCLB, like all accountability systems, was a conservative trick to show the schools as failures and open the door for vouchers. "The president's ultimate goal," said former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.), one of the Democrats who now harshly attacks NCLB, "is to make the public schools so awful, and starve them of money, just as he's starving all the other social programs, so that people give up on the public schools." Vouchers remain very much on the conservative agenda.
What is certain is that Bush regarded the widely lauded "Texas Miracle" -- which, as much as anything, gave him credibility as a moderate when he ran four years ago -- as a model. [See Peter Schrag, "Too Good to Be True," tap, Jan. 3, 2000.] Texas had shown substantial improvements and closed racial achievement gaps on its own high-stakes tests in the 1990s. But that success had come with major costs: Dropout rates rose, teachers had to emphasize tests and drills at the expense of the broader curriculum, and school bureaucrats were involved in rampant cheating and falsification of data in places like Houston, where Paige was superintendent before Bush made him U.S. secretary of education. And students often continued to test poorly on all but the mandated tests: On its own tests, more than 80 percent of Texas students are proficient in reading; on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, less than 25 percent are.
The real Texas record should long have been a cautionary signal, not only for NCLB but also for the states that copied it. Now, in state after state, the tough standards so hopefully adopted in the past decade are being rolled back, deadlines are being postponed and passing test scores lowered. That's driven in part by a fear of a backlash if lots of kids or schools don't make the grade, and, in part, by shortfalls in the funding that was supposed to accompany the higher standards. If local, state and federal budgets get still tighter, the same accountability-funding nexus that was supposed to get the schools more money may well drive the standards down. It's a two-way escalator.
Kennedy and Miller both feel snookered by Bush and angrily denounced the president's failure to fully fund NCLB as another example of a White House of four-flushers who talk big dollars and deliver nickels. (Miller issues periodic "Broken Promises" reports accusing Republicans of sabotaging school reform.) But both continue to support NCLB, as do liberal groups like the Education Trust and the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights. "The federal government," said William Taylor, a veteran civil-rights lawyer and chairman of the Citizens' Commission, "is doing a hell of a lot more for the states now than in the early years. A lot of the whining and bitching and moaning is coming from people who don't like the accountability provisions, so they're saying they don't have the money to do this."
He's at least partly correct. Through most of the nearly 40 years since the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Title I funds were dribbled into a politically driven form of general aid instead of going to the low-income children it was designed for. Clinton-era reforms started the process of requiring schools to focus it on poor kids -- children who in many places were long neglected -- and use it more effectively. NCLB took that process still further in making districts and schools accountable for the achievement of those children.
Given the lack of plausible political alternatives -- the fact that nothing has ever put as much emphasis on the academic success of poor and minority children -- it's the only real game in town. If NCLB goes, those who'll be most hurt will, once again, be the children who can least afford it. But NCLB badly needs fixing to provide more flexibility in some areas and more rigorous enforcement in others, especially of the provisions mandating better-qualified teachers for poor children. It needs to provide more help and fewer penalties to low-performing schools. And it desperately needs to be better funded. Otherwise it will be just another in a string of hollow promises.
For more information about the issues covered in this article, visit the special report at Moving Ideas.
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