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What Do We Do About NCLB?

The return of a GOP majority to DC has renewed talk of the Great White Whale  of education reform-- completing the long-overdue rewrite of ESEA, currently commonly known as No Child Left Behind.

Lest we forget, NCLB is an actual law, and every state in the union is in violation. At this point the early predictions about the law are true-- every school is either failing or cheating. It's that universal violation that makes the extra-legal legerdemain of Race to the Top/waivers possible. Change the law so that it no longer requires 100% of US students to be above average, and the waivers become unnecessary, and the current administration's legisltion-free rewrite of US education collapses. If I were cynical, I might conclude that it's that chance to hand the President a policy defeat, and not a desire to restore the promise of public education, that motivates some GOPpers on this issue.

But an ESEA rewrite brings us up against the same obstacle that has been clogging the pipes since 2007-- what to put in its place? Nobody has yet found the proper education enema to get things moving.

Yesterday Andy Smarick and Jack Schneider took on the question, and while they are both bright and learned men, I find that I disagree with both of them in some substantial ways.

Smarick, both in the EdWeek piece and in his writing elsewhere, has recognized that education now falls into a classic conservative conundrum-- on the one hand, conservatives want government to leave people alone and stop telling them what to do, but on the other hand, when government leaves people alone, they often run out and start doing things conservatives think they ought not to.

Smarick writes that "when states made virtually all K-12 decisions absent federal accountability rules--call this the "pre-NCLB" era--our nation didn't get the results we wanted." Schneider questions whether that's actually true. I'd like to ask who "we" are.

Smarick is concerned that "too many disadvantaged kids were not well-served" in pre-NCLB America. That's a legitimate concern, but at this stage of the game, there's no sign that NCLB/RttT made anything better.

And while I get his concern that a government that hands over giant honking bales of cash can reasonably expected to hear the banging of its bucks, all that gets us is an influx of companies that are good at filling out accountability paperwork.

This is part of what Schneider likes about NCLB-- transparent school accountability, and disaggregation of data. I'm not convinced, because the "data" we're talking about are inevitably test scores. The breaking out of sub-groups has had some deeply unpleasant side effects. For instance, the common practice of pre-testing students and targetting the failures. This gives us a two-tier system; pre-test winners get a full, rich day of varied class offerings, while pre-test losers (or last year's test losers) get a day filled with math and English and math and English and test prep and more test prep.

In my area, where our most common sub-groups are low-income students, we would be further ahead to hire enough of those parents at well-paying jobs doing anything at all, so that their children were no longer part of the subgroup and we could make the sub-group small enough not to destroy our numbers.

So here's my rewrite of NCLB:

The federal government will distribute its giant mountain of imaginary education-cash in a manner designed to offset the varied levels of poverty across the US.

Somebody can punch up the language. But that's it. In all other respects, the federal government will butt out of the education biz.

Oh, I know I'm fantasizing. If they rewrite it, it will be yet again a labyrinthian mess of federal overrreach and mandated malpractice. Here's why--

Any federal law about education will be written not by people who are good at education, but by people who are good at the business of politics and regulation. Accountability will continue to be based on a politically-favored business model, which will reward people who are good at business and government accountability paperwork. At no point will the rewrite be under the control or direction of people who will be primarily concerned with the educational aspects of the bill.

Look at NCLB. The insane Lake Woebegone clause (that all students will be made above average) was all about politics, and even today, Smarick was trotting out the old "If you don't want it to be 100%, then you go ahead and pick out which students will be left behind" which is all about political leverage and not one iota about education. The politicians who put it there created a time bomb that they never expected to go off. The steep climb of the AYP wasn't scheduled to start until 2008, after Pres. Bush was done and after Congress was supposed to rewrite the bill. But 2007 came and they couldn't get the job done.

When Congress set that reality-impaired goal, they weren't over-estimating teachers. They were over-estimating themselves. Politics stuck us with an idea that was political gold, but educationally impossible (and the only support ever offered is essentially a political dare-- "go ahead and say something that can be used against you.")

Revise ESEA? The feds can't do this job right (and maybe not even at all). The best solution, the solution that would actually take US education forward, is for the feds to back up and get out of the business of doing anything except trying to level the financial playing field.

Federal involvement in education has not solved a single problem, or fixed a single broken thing. If you think the states do a lousy job of handling education, please note that federal involvement has only made things worse. The problems of big city schools are problems of politics and money; NCLB and RttT have simply injected more money-fueled politics into state-level education, and it has gotten us nothing good. Nothing. Urban schools are a problem in search of a solution, but the solution does not lie in ESEA. Nor has the unending, ever-growing mountain of reporting to the federal government helped anybody fix anything, with the possible exception of increased employment for administrators and administrative assistants hired by school districts to cope with government reporting requirements.


My solution is both radical and reactionary. The cry of fans of federalism is, "Without accountability and reporting to the federal government, how will we know that schools are doing well." My response is-- who needs to know? Who, beyond the teachers and administrators and local taxpayers and parents, needs to know how a particular school is doing, and what could the federal government do to inform them? My answers-- nobody, and nothing. It is, in fact, the system that allowed us the robust freedom and flexibility that coincided with the 20th century rise of the US as a world power.

All I want to do with NCLB is blow it up. I realize I'm dreaming, but so is anyone who thinks we can have 100% above average students or who thinks that free market forces could possibly help education. I like my dream better.

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