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Schools Are Not in a True Marketplace


Dear Deborah,

It was interesting that you used the analogy to Consumer Reports to discuss the value of grading schools. As a longtime subscriber to CR, I understand that it is useful to have a disinterested voice evaluating the products in the marketplace. To make sure that there is never a conflict of interest, CR does not accept advertising; no one can ever say that their judgments were tainted by commercial interests.

The CR example shows, I think, the problems with assigning a letter grade (only one letter grade, not a report card) to each school. To begin with, schools are not situated in a true marketplace. We may decide to buy this car, not that one, or this television, not that one, because we are consumers and have a wide choice of products. But parents do not have the same free choice about where to send their children; even if they wanted to withdraw them from an F school and send them to an A school, the A school may be too distant from their home and it certainly will not have enough seats for students who might want to transfer in. Most parents would be happy to know that their children were attending a good school that was close to home. They have neither the time nor the sophistication to shop around the city for a higher-rated school. Given the widespread complaint that the ratings themselves are flawed, school officials may be dispensing false data to parents, scaring them needlessly about their children's school and destabilizing schools and communities.

Then, too, there is the problem of conflict of interest. Is it really a good idea that schools should be graded by the very officials responsible for leading them? Don't they have an inherent conflict of interest? Consumer Reports takes pains to insulate itself from the appearance of conflict of interest. Top school officials, on the other hand, are the ones who rank and grade and test and report on their own performance. In New York City, the situation is anomalous, in that school officials disdain any responsibility for improving the schools; under their theory of principal empowerment, only the principal is to be held responsible, even though there are many conditions affecting achievement that are beyond the principal's influence.

I certainly agree with you that NCLB should not be reauthorized until there is more careful reconsideration of what it has accomplished and what its negative consequences have been. Everything that I read and hear supports the view that it will NOT be reauthorized until after the 2008 election. A new president will presumably set the agenda for federal education policy. Since Democrats control the Congress until the next election, I think it fair to say that NCLB is now the property of the Democratic party.

Given the importance of the NEA and the AFT within Democratic ranks, I would have assumed that Congress would be taking a hard look at NCLB, but this does not seem to be the case. Last week I was invited to meet with a very smart Democratic congressman who is a member of the Education Committee in the House of Representatives. I told him that I hoped Congress would consider a radical restructuring of NCLB. He immediately disabused me of that idea. He said that NCLB will be re-authorized; that there would be changes, but that they would not be radical ones. I told him that if they did some polling or even talked to teachers in their districts, they would find that the law was hated by most teachers. That didn't seem to faze him. The law will no doubt get a new name, but the basic structure will not be abandoned.

One wonders, if the people who have to do the implementation say that it is not working, why would Congress push ahead? But apparently they are. It is time to realize that this law, in its next iteration, will be a product of the Democratic party. My guess is that no one in Washington wants to give up the power to tell teachers what to do.



I grew up in a medical family and I remember how the medical profession fought against Medicare, and then to a lesser extent, Medicaid. It was socializing medicine (socialism was right next to communism, which, we all knew, was those bad Ruskies with the missiles aimed at us)--a very bad thing.

This many years later, sociologists can track improved quality of life for senior citizens to the advent of Social Security and Medicare. We can track improved birth and childhood outcomes to Medicaid. And the AMA isn't fighting it anymore.

All of this to say--I don't think that the fact that the implementers are unhappy adds up to an indication that NCLB should be abandoned.

NCLB, from its beginning, was a bi-partisan disaster--like the War in Iraq. After the elections in '08, a Democratic regime will most likely inherit both NCLB and the war from the Republicans. So far, neither Clinton nor Obama have anything much different from Bush to say on what must be done with either. This modern brand of politics, where Democrats are mortally afraid of distancing themselves too far from Republican policies for fear of being labeled "liberals", is what will likely shackle all of us with the "war on terror" and NCLB for another decade or more.

One wonders, if the people who have to do the implementation say that it is not working, why would Congress push ahead?

Education seems to be one of the few fields where many policy makers seem to view the practioners as the problem. And in the discussions of NCLB renewal, I've been struck by the almost circular nature of some of the arguments -- the fact that educators (and its not just teachers, its administrators and local school boards as well) -- opposed certain aspects of the law was taken as evidence that those educators were the source of the problem.

I'm not a big fan of standardized tests, but the more I followed the NCLB reauthorization discussions, the more appalled I became that the aim of the most publicized revisions seem to be to add more of what wasn't working -- tests in more subjects, more untested, market-ideology "solutions."

In the end I've come to this that Diane has it right when in when she says that Congress should set some national standards/goals, and a mechanism to measure progress, but stop pretending that they know what everyone needs to do to reach the goals.

We need a little less deference to the market-place of artifical economic incentives (which are almost always an invitation to "gaming"), and a little more respect for the marketplace of ideas.


I'd like to hear more about the smart congressman's logic. Does he think that the NCLB format could be educationally viable or is he looking first and foremost at politics?

In either case, we will complete two more school years before the reauthorization work starts in earnest. I agree with Bernard that NCLB was a bipartisan disaster like Iraq, but we wouldn't make that mistake again, would we? Others will argue that NCLB has produced mixed results, but who but the most extreme true believer would claim that its billions of dollars were well spent?

But that's not my point. My point is that NCLB will be seven or eight years old, and in our world those were "dog years." Why should we be locked into that ancient history? Perhaps we should ask Dems to just take a sabatical on education until 2008. Then ask them to look at the issue with fresh eyes. Consider the politics of 2008 in the context of post NCLB understandings of education, and not in the context of 2000s politics.

And this time, if our main concern is poor children's education, then this time let's design a law that makes sense for high poverty schools. (were I a suburban parent, teachers, and/or voter, I would be so relieved by a reworking of NCLB I wouldn't care if we got anything out of it at all)

Similarly, from the perspective of an inner city teacher, the Mass Insight report funded by Gates is a major paradigm shift. Early in NCLB, Gates (and others) sought to replicate best practices without bothering to ask whether policies for sustaining improvements in low poverty schools were appropriate for transforming high poverty schools. Now they have published a briliiant explanation of why turning around the highest poverty schools needs dramatically different policies.

This is just the latest of solid research which explains the flaws inherent in NCLB, and I'm assuming that more will be published in the next 1 1/2 years. And combine the Gates' commitment to the 2008 election with its much more realistic understanding of education, and we have to be more hopeful.

In regard to the concerned parent, I'm glad you raised that point. I had never thought about it that way. But you must remember that desite the old AMA propoganda, nobody in government really wanted to intrude into the way that doctors practice medicine. The pro-NCLB blogs claim that the same applies to NCLB and that the government is not to blame for the educational malpractice that has followed NCLB. So this is the question I would ask: after seven years of MediCare, was there really evidence of negative effects due to government intrusion into the way doctors practice? If we provide even more evidence that single measure accountability is damaging kids, would you join us in taking a fresh look at NCLB?


The reason NCLB has such tremendous public and congressional support is that there is a widespread belief (correctly so) that our children are not learning as much as they should. Everybody assumes that teachers would prefer not to change and discount their protestations.

Without a viable alternative to our current school system/accountability that delivers on increasing student learning, our schools will continue to be subjected to prescriptive dictates from Congress, the radical whims of wealthy businessmen and remain rather distrusted by the general public.

Erin Johnson


"My guess is that no one in Washington wants to give up the power to tell teachers what to do." I agree with most of what you have to say but isn't this is a bit misleading? Are federal lawmakers out to tell teachers what to do or are they simply attempting to address the pell-mell embarrassment that existed in our schools prior to ed reform and NCLB?

Prior to ed reform teachers were allowed to teach whatever they wanted (or didn't - and that was the problem). There was no formal curriculum to tell teachers what to teach or when to teach it. How many grades of elementary school have to teach about the first Thanksgiving before someone screams, "Redundant!"? In September, 2005 a New York Times editorial stated local school boards and textbook companies were running our schools by "default" because there was no plan, no direction from professional educators.

Standards, developed and adopted in 49 of the 50 states, have made a common body of knowledge available to all within the state. Washington has simply been intelligent enough to support this attempted correction. Let’s just hope in the 2009 reauthorization they have the wherewithal to include national standards most people recognize as necessary to ensure equitable availability of information for all students coast to coast.

What Erin and Paul said - ditto from me.

To expand - it's the curriculum dummy. The textbook (and junk such as Neal Bush's COW) should not run our curriculum.

Oh how I can't wait for teachers, parents, and professionals to get off their butts, quit their hand wringing, and write free curriculum.

All of this to say--I don't think that the fact that the implementers are unhappy adds up to an indication that NCLB should be abandoned.


After teaching for 39 years, and retiring 7 years ago, I am very concerned about the
failing No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB). This law was an extension of the Elementary and
Secondary Education Act which became law April 11, 1965 during President Lyndon B.
Johnson's administration, as you know, which was retooled under President Clinton with
IASA. It was President Clinton’s version of the law, the Improving America’s Schools
Act (IASA), which first required states to test academic performance and develop plans to
improve it.

President Bush took things further by adding sanctions to the mix. Under NCLB, states
that want to continue receiving federal education funding must submit plans for every
student, regardless of race, income, or native tongue, to be proficient at reading and
math by 2014 which is unrealistic and totally unattainable and unnecessary. Schools whose
students don’t make “adequate yearly progress [AYP]” toward that goal—as measured by an
exhaustive battery of multiple choice tests—are targeted for radical restructuring.
What’s more, schools marked for improvement must give their students the option of
transferring to better schools.

Seven years and more than $150 billion later, the Bush administration insists NCLB has
been a huge success. Some schools have shown major improvement. Math and reading scores
are on the rise.

Indeed, one thing we know from all the testing that is required is that the nation’s
students aren’t making much progress under NCLB. Math scores, for instance, have risen
under NCLB, but at a slower rate than they did before the law took effect. Reading scores
have barely budged.

According to critics and me included, NCLB has actually lowered education standards by
forcing schools to obsess over testing while diverting some of their own funds—as well as
huge chunks of classroom time—away from their own educational goals to do that testing.

There’s been book-cooking, too: Afraid of having their schools tagged as failures, which
could mean large-scale staff replacement, or being forced to cede a school to private
management, many states have assured themselves of improved results by dumbing down their
assessment tests or lowering the definition of a passing grade. Technically, that’s
allowed, since NCLB requires students to be “proficient” but doesn’t say what that means.

It seemed unlikely to surface for a vote anytime soon, either in the House or in the
Senate—where Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both members of the Senate Health,
Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, have openly excoriated it. Clinton calls it a
“broken” promise; Obama has branded it “one of the emptiest slogans in the history of
American politics.”

Congress has allowed the NCLB to expire as of Sept. 30, 2008. The law is not flexible,
not fair and not funded. School and teacher accountability measures are obviously not
working under the NCLB as evidenced by Math and Reading test scores. The NCLB should be

If the goal of our schools is for all children to become proficient in Math and Reading
(as well as Science and Social Studies, etc.), than a return to diagnostic and
corrective precedures in education is desperately needed. We must first identify or
diagnose the weaknesses a child has in various subject matter and then develop a plan to
correct those weaknesses. Principals, teachers, students and parents must all be
involved in this process at the school level. By properly funding such an approach, the
goal of subject matter proficiency will be achieved. All of the stakeholders in this
process must be held responsible for the end result - education of the child.

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