Eleven years ago, I moved to Washington, D.C. to work on education. The liberal think tank that hired me focused on state issues, so I had nothing to do with the project that was consuming D.C. wonks at the time: a once-a-decade reauthorization of the mammoth federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would become the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. I didn’t quite appreciate the scale of it until late September, when a refugee from the anthrax attack on the Hart Senate Office building decamped in our conference room and described the cabinets of notes, research, analysis, and draft legislation he had been forced to abandon until the building could be properly flooded with cleansing poison gas.
Somehow, they managed to finish the bill anyway. In hindsight, many gave credit to the brief post-9/11 spirit of proving that the people’s work would not be halted by terrorists, foreign or domestic. But the NCLB was also the product of an historic and unlikely communion between President George W. Bush, who at the time still held a vestige of his “compassionate conservative” mantle, and Senator Edward Kennedy, whose family involvement with ESEA dated back to Robert Kennedy’s role in writing the original bill in 1965. Both men genuinely believed in the idea of administering annual standardized tests to schoolchildren and holding schools accountable for the results. Schools would be judged by escalating performance targets that reached 100 percent proficiency in 2014, with serious consequences for those that fell short. NCLB passed Congress with 91 votes in the Senate and 384 in the House.
A year later, I went to work at the Education Trust, an advocacy organization that played a key role in writing NCLB. The organization’s leaders were civil rights veterans who saw the law as the next step in a movement that began with Brown v. Board. There was still a lot of optimism in those early years; Bush hadn’t reached the point of maximum polarization, and NCLB was still a few years away from becoming toxic shorthand for all educational grievances, large and small.
But when we dug into the details of NCLB implementation, there were already troubling signs. While the law marked a high water mark of federal control over K-12 education, it was still, relatively speaking, not far from the ocean floor. NCLB gave states vast discretion to set standards, choose tests, and decide what test scores would yield a passing grade. The technicalities of the law’s accountability regime created openings for ruthlessly inventive state bureaucrats to excuse their low-performing schools from scrutiny and sanction. Teachers unions that had been excluded from the negotiating table began waging an increasingly public fight against the law. States-rights Republicans did the same.
Fast-forward to this month, when the New York Times reported that a majority of states had received permission from the U.S. Department of Education to waive the law’s accountability requirements. Support for NCLB in Congress has collapsed; a vote today would probably yield as many “No” votes as there were “Yeas” in 2001. But because Congress circa 2012 is historically inept at passing important legislation, and the politics of school reform remain knotted in larger debates about federalism, unionism, and money, the next version of ESEA is four years overdue. So the Obama administration has used its regulatory discretion to reauthorize the law by fiat, exempting states that sign on to its agenda from the requirement that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014.
As NCLB slowly dies from a combination of Congressional inattention, regulatory whittling, and the sheer weight of public rejection, it’s worth asking why so much of the optimism surrounding the law proved unfounded, and what those who still believe in federal intervention on behalf of disadvantaged students should do next.
WHILE NCLB HAS obviously failed politically, its net effect on student learning is less clear. There is only one reliable measure of overall student achievement in the United States: the National Assessment of Educational Progress, administered biannually to a representative sample of students by the U.S. Department of Education. According to the NAEP, student learning progressed after NCLB much as it had been developing before: slow, steady gains in mathematics, particularly among elementary school students, but little improvement in reading at any grade.
Results on state tests have been substantially better, which was, importantly, the point: Schools are held accountable for how much they learn on state-created exams matched to state-developed standards, not the NAEP. But as Harvard professor Daniel Koretz has written, that can create problems of its own. High-stakes tests that consistently focus on narrow slivers of a larger curriculum can yield inflated scores when schools devote large amounts of time to test prep exercises. Scores on New York state tests improved so quickly that the state had re-calibrate scores downward, causing school ratings to lurch from year to year.
To be sure, ongoing progress in the foundational subject of math is a real accomplishment. School improvement trajectories aren’t like bodies in motion, coasting on momentum. They’re more like the path up a mountain, each step harder than the last. But in the end, a fair look at American education over the last two decades doesn’t suggest that anything momentous happened in 2001. And NCLB certainly failed spectacularly by the terms built into its system of continuous improvement: We will be nowhere close to having 100 percent of students proficient in 2014.
And in that wildly optimistic goal, the conceptual flaws of No Child Left Behind can be most easily found. It’s crucial to remember that in 2001, one could fairly characterize the previous half-century of federal education intervention as a long winning streak. In Brown v. Board, the judicial and military might of the federal government was used to prevent racial discrimination against minority students. ESEA focused on financial inequities, providing federal dollars to high-poverty schools. While the 1973 school funding case San Antonio v. Rodriguez ultimately failed in the Supreme Court by a single vote, it provided a template for successful lawsuits in dozens of states that forced legislators to start equalizing funding among schools. When the law that became the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act passed in 1975, millions of vulnerable students were granted enforceable legal rights to a quality education.
In each case, national policymakers stepped in to help students who were ill-served by locally-run schools. The foundations of standards-based accountability were laid in 1994, during the previous reauthorization of ESEA. No Child Left Behind was designed to make those ideas meaningful by building accountability incentives strong enough to push school schools and students to new heights of performance.
But if the previous laws were ideal precedents in spirit for NCLB, they weren’t adequate precedents in design. Brown made reprehensible practices illegal; IDEA granted legal rights to a certain class of students. But neither suggested empirical solutions for improving the everyday classroom experience of America’s millions of disadvantaged students.