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Overhauling No Child Left Behind: Careful What You Wish For

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Over at Politico, Maggie Severns is reporting big news about Republican plans to overhaul No Child Left Behind now that they have taken control of both houses of Congress. The politics, as you might expect, are exceptionally messy.

First, let's rewind: what overhauling NCLB really means is re-authorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which first became law as part of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program in 1965. Say what you will about Johnson's plans to eradicate poverty through education, but one thing is clear: LBJ promoted a legislative program that he felt would ameliorate longstanding inequalities in American life to make our society better ("Great," even) and wanted to use federal dollars to empower people in local communities to eliminate poverty at the source by educating people out of it. The results have been mixed, and it's even fair to say that the thinking behind ESEA was a little naive; looking back now, it's not hard to conclude that teachers and schools can't erase the effects of poverty by themselves, though it's also fair to point out that complicated funding formulas, especially when they wind through an adversarial political system, might not always result in money going to the places where it's needed most. 

Anyway, the key point about ESEA is this one: it signaled a dramatic increase in the federal government's role in shaping education policy. This role was augmented with each successive reauthorization of the bill, and also augmented by Jimmy Carter's support for creating a federal Department of Education when he ran for president in 1976. (The historians among us will note that Ronald Reagan made dismantling the Department a cornerstone of his run for president in 1980; he never did that, of course, but gave us A Nation at Risk instead.) Nothing new to report here: our government has used the power of the purse to shape all kinds of social policies, as it should. That's what government is for. Some people would have you believe that this increased federal role is proof positive of the excessive and unchecked growth of the federal government itself, which we have all been led to believe is the worst thing that happened to America in the 20th century. But this is a funny argument. For one thing, the population of the United States increased from 76 million in 1900 to 281 million in 2000 (and was already up to 308 million by 2010). It stands to reason that the government might get a little bigger to accommodate that 350% growth in population.

But there's another side to this too. Anyone who has seen the movie Selma, or who knows much of anything about the civil rights movement, understands that the one of the more potent arguments used to perpetuate the system of segregation in the south at mid-century was the claim that the federal government had no business telling southern governors how to run their states. Civil rights was a states' rights issue, they said. Most of us know this is patently absurd: if the Constitution guarantees voting rights to every eligible citizen, for example, and if a duly elected Congress passes laws to protect those rights, then the supremacy clause gives the federal government the power to enforce those rights. End of story. For most of the 20th century, we believed that the United States was an actual union of states, not just a confederation that kind of held itself together when it wanted to. This was one country, united politically and, to some extent, culturally as well. It didn't only become one when foreign powers threatened it or when it became politically convenient for a union to exist.

And that brings us back to NCLB. In it's own way, NCLB doubled down on the commitments made by LBJ and the presidents who followed him: it pledged to hold schools and districts accountable for making sure kids actually get the fair shake they were promised, and it pledged to use the power of the federal government to enforce that promise. It said: we are responsible for each other, regardless of which states we live in, and we elect a government to ensure that these responsibilities are carried out. As Severns puts it:

Part of the difficulty in rewriting the law is that the most hated parts of the bill are deeply intertwined with its heralded civil rights provisions: The testing requirements, for example, allowed the government for the first time to spotlight the achievement gaps between white students from higher-income families and their peers when those test results were broken down by race and socioeconomic status. NCLB put a public spotlight on schools and districts that were falling flat when it comes to helping disadvantaged students—and pressed them to improve when no one else would.

In other words, NCLB provided evidence to prove what many of us already knew: that kids in poorer districts were not, in fact, getting an education that even approached the education being provided to their peers in wealthier ones, in spite of all the money being spent on their behalf. Another of the things NCLB was designed to do was stop the flow of money to districts and states with no strings attached. Without accountability, providing money year after year to programs that do not solve educational problems (let alone help address the problem of lifting people out of poverty) is the very definition of wasteful government spending. It seems to me that Congress was right to want to demand some accountability from states spending all our money, especially those that were less than enthuastic about breaking down racial and socioeconomic barriers. 

This is what worries me most about plans to change NCLB. Like a lot of people, I want it gone: the testing NCLB authorized is beyond absurd, not least of all because the tests have no curricular foundation supporting them. We all know that the major test makers market the same materials in almost every state—if necessity is the mother of invention, efficiency is like an annoying uncle who always shows up when you don't want him to—regardless of the "standards" and curricula used in those states. We put the cart ahead of the horse when we prescribed tests without specifying what should be taught first, which is one reason I think we need to be careful about how we handle the debate about common core. If we're going to scrap NCLB we had better be smart about coming up with a plan to replace it.

That's because there may be other agendas in play here too. Are Republicans really interested in delivering a bill that makes sense educationally and remains true to the goals established by ESEA, or are they going to try to use a mile-wide opening—the country's collective dissatisfaction with standardized testing—to push through radical changes that would otherwise never see the light of day? If a replacement bill for NCLB comes out looking anything like the bill the House passed in 2013 (they called it the "Student Success Act"), then public school children and teachers will be worse off for it. That bill would have kept most of the testing intact, but added a voucher system and essentially stripped away all federal involvement in education, devolving that responsibility to the states. States, in turn, would not even have been required, had the bill become law, to preserve spending levels in order to receive federal funding for education. That's not a step forward, folks. Sadly, many states don't have the best track record when it comes to civil rights issues—and make no mistake about it: education is a civil rights issue.

It looks, for all intents and purposes, like now we're being promised all those things that were in the Student Success Act, with no accountability provisions to boot. Taking the politics to their logical conclusion, we could end up with no testing at all, no common standards, significantly reduced federal influence on education policy, and a voucher system thrown in for good measure. That sounds like where we were, not where we should be going. Sometimes, as they say, the cure is worse than the disease. Be careful what you wish for.

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