Will Conservatives Leave Education Reform Behind?

I'd like to shake the hand of the speechwriter who crafted then-Governor George W. Bush's promise, sworn before the NAACP's 91st annual convention in 2000, to reform American public schools and put an end to "the soft bigotry of low expectations." The language is stirring, even progressive. But the resulting legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, was built around a maddening series of contradictions.

Under-funded by $28 billion, NCLB made universal achievement of high academic standards a goal, but allowed each state to define "high" for itself. It required states to put a qualified teacher with an education or subject-specific degree in each classroom, but by emphasizing rote learning and standardized tests, made teaching a less attractive profession for creative, dedicated professionals. And by placing the bar for student success at 100 percent -- every single child scoring at or above proficiency standards by the 2013-2014 school year -- NCLB seemed to set up the public school system for failure. Many liberal critics wondered if the Bush administration's covert goal all along had been to privatize education through a process by which every school in America would slowly join the ranks of the "failing," with its students diverted to charter schools. Already, 20 percent of public schools are "failing," and the bill's most stringent demands have yet to kick in.

Outside of the Department of Education, nobody is very happy with NCLB as the Congress prepares to debate its reauthorization this summer. It is against this uncertain legislative backdrop that Derek Neal, a University of Chicago economist specializing in black-white skills disparities, appeared at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. yesterday to argue that No Child Left Behind actually "leaves behind by design." Neal's research shows NCLB is not at all a program that lifts up the poorest or weakest students, but rather focuses attention on "bubble" kids, those who are close to passing proficiency exams, but not quite there. Because schools are judged by one metric only -- the percentage of students passing the tests -- it's just not worth it for administrators to devote resources on children perceived to be lost causes.

Despite the conservative venue and the always-unfortunate presence of race-baiting Bell Curve author Charles Murray as a responder, Neal's paper made good sense in diagnosing NCLB's weaknesses. "Truly disadvantaged kids appear to be victims of educational triage," Neal explained, pointing to charts showing that under NCLB, Chicago public school students with average academic records saw a tiny increase in test scores, but students in the bottom and top deciles saw no progress at all, and sometimes a regression.

There's agreement that NCLB provides an important service by mandating, for the first time, the nationwide collection of educational outcome data according to race, class, gender, and other socioeconomic factors. But the legislation seems to have few friends. Republicans and Democrats alike have supported localities and states in their efforts to wriggle out of NCLB's requirements. Suburban and rural communities with good schools resent the intervention into their curricula and teaching methods, while city mayors and superintendents are understandably panicking about their schools' inevitable failure to live up to standards they don't have the funding to meet.

"The results of the reform are inconsistent with the political rhetoric that surrounded it focusing on the truly disadvantaged," Neal said. That might be the most sensible thing ever uttered in the halls of AEI, but the event proposed little in the way of solutions. Perhaps this is because Neal's message -- low-income students of color deserve more from the federal government -- is fundamentally inconsistent with conservative economic and political predilections.

NCLB was passed in January 2002, when Bush was still flush with post-9/11 popularity. Supported by high-profile Democrats including Sen. Ted Kennedy, Republicans held their noses as they voted for a bill that increased the oversight power of a federal agency -- the DOE -- that Ronald Reagan once said he wanted to shut down entirely. Five years later, AEI education fellow Frederick Hess vacillates within one op-ed column between support for federally dictated, uniform high standards and suggesting that "an alternative course is to embrace a more modest federal role, let states set their own goals and charge the feds with illuminating how states are doing."

The Heritage Foundation errs clearly on the side of gutting NCLB. Eugene Hickok and Matthew Lander write, "To protect citizen ownership of American education, Congress must address the negative structural incentives of No Child Left Behind testing policies. This can best be accomplished by ending federal goals for student progress and returning control of state standards and accountability policies to the state level."

Faced with so many unhappy constituencies on both the no-testing left and the states' rights right, the great fear is that Congress will do nothing at all with NCLB, allowing the legislation to hobble along as an unfunded mandate that imposes upon schools, but does far too little to prop them up in their difficult work.

But, most education experts argue, nothing shouldn't be an option. Our public education system is rife with inequality, funded in a discriminatory fashion based on local property taxes, and -- due in large part to the lack of uniform national expectations -- produces young people who can't compete with their international peers on critical thinking, reading comprehension, simple mathematics, and other basic skills necessary for a successful adult life. Only 25 percent of American high school graduates are ready to take on college-level work. States like Mississippi administer such easy exams to their students that they claim 89 percent proficiency rates although only 18 percent of Mississippi students can pass the more challenging (yet still rudimentary) federal National Assessment of Education Progress.

Conservatives might be able to get on board with first-step NCLB reforms such as allowing schools to index their success to raw improvement of students across all achievement levels, instead of hitting a zero-sum number of proficient kids. But there's so much more at stake than how we measure academic success; controversial plans for teacher merit pay are on the table, as well as debates over the content of federally-recommended phonics and elementary mathematics curricula. Congressional staffers and educational policy wonks doubt that Congress, bogged down after battles over the Iraq War fundamental, will have the fortitude to come to a workable compromise on NCLB.

If we are to improve teaching, decrease class sizes, and create assessments that test not only for rudimentary skills, but also for knowledge and critical thinking, Congress will need to sign the check. But that's not something even the most compassionate conservatives seem willing to talk about. That leaves the future of bipartisan public-school reform in jeopardy.

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