Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Requiem For A Failed Education Policy

The Long Slow Death Of No Child Left Behind

This from Kevin Carey in The New Republic:
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...


Anonymous said...

It is questionable that federal intervention on a nation wide scale can ever be considered particularly effective in terms of the ideals which it embodies. Whisky taxes, reconstruction, civil rights legislation and amendments, tax codes, etc.

It would seem that like prohibition, it is the local community people who determine what is and isn't the standard of our citizens. Attempting to legislatively impose agendas of the party in power or percieved ideals and values of the moment, no matter how well intentioned, are going to fail if the people who they influence and the individuals who are to enforce and implement them are not accepting of mandates which they neither have a voice nor a benefit.

Richard Day said...

I agree that its questionable....but so is the reverse.

Without federal intervention some of our personal freedoms would have been trodden over by local majorities and we would be a very different nation...likely run by by a bunch of little religious republics.

You say, "it is the local community people who determine what is and isn't the standard of our citizens."

The history of schooling, until relatively recently, has been a history of local control (remember the Trustee system) and it yielded a much worse system than exists today - one that had little interest in equity and was rotten with corruption, fraud and politics.

While federal "intervention" has reached an all-time high, I am reminded that any state at any time could have exempted themselves from federal mandates, if they could muster the political will and local taxes to do so. Has the federal government intervened? Or have the states abdicated their constitutional authority - only to complain about their abdication?

Anonymous said...

I think the later may be true about the states but I simply have a genuine concern that though the federal government may be attempting to provide a well intentioned homogonized effort at pushing toward educational ideals, that neither it nor the states have the resources to accomplish the task in addtion to the multiple other commitments which all levels of government have extended. I am not sure how one can expect to extend accountability and raise expectations while reducing resources or placing restrictions on their use based upon political agendas. I continue to believe that education is a state responsibility and that federal attempts to standardize that arena of influence is not any more valid than trying to make all states grow the same crops, observe the same road construction practices or certify barbers. I just don't feel that government is capable sustaining the ideals which are espose in so many different human services pies which it has its fingers stuck in.

As when working with a student teacher or a KTIP teacher who is in need of growth, you don't go in and give them a list of 12 things improve on all at once. You identify 2 or 3 priority areas and focus resourses and time on working on strengthening those speicific priority areas. It seems like the last few years, our leaders are constantly sending down initiatives after initiatives focused on a diverse series of changes. Most of these expectations receive inadequate funding if any and are monitored by third party vendor mechanisms or the creation of data reports which no one could possibly have the time to review. Most dishartening is when you have these initiatives forced upon you as though each is of greatest priority only to learn 3 - 5 years later that the effort was in vain because the vendor contract changes, the mechanisms were flawed, the priority is actually no longer as significant as portrayed earlier or the political leadership has changed. Stability does not nessessarily mean stagnation or intrenchment any more than change exclusively means improvement and advancement.