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...