NCLB at 5: What can be done?

No Child Left Behind’s fifth birthday leaves Fordham’s Mike Petrilli with little to celebrate. Once an ardent booster within the Bush administration, he now fears the law’s flaws probably aren’t fixable.

The “highly qualified teachers” mandate was “a huge overreach” and requring all students to reach “proficiency” by 2014 while letting states define “proficiency” has created “a race to the bottom.” Petrilli also is disappointed by schools reliance on test prep rather than providing a broad, content-rich education. Getting districts to inform parents of their school choice options has proven “un-implementable.”

I can’t pretend any longer that the law is “working,” or that a tweak and a tuck would make it “work.” Yet I still like its zeitgeist. As Kati Haycock argued at the AEI confab, NCLB has “changed the conversation” in education. Results are now the coin of the realm; the “soft bigotry of low expectations” is taboo; closing the achievement gap is at the top of everyone’s to-do list. All for the good. More than good. But let’s face it: it doesn’t help the dedicated principal who is pulling her hair out because of the law’s nonsensical provisions — the specifics that keep NCLB from achieving its own aims.

Petrilli fears NCLB will be reauthorized with only minor tweaks or that it will be dumped entirely, a disaster for poor kids. His alternative: “The feds should adopt a simple, radical principle: Do it yourself, or don’t do it at all.”

In the “Do it Yourself” category would be two major responsibilities: distributing funds to the neediest students, and collecting and publishing transparent information about the performance of U.S. schools. Redistributing funds is easy; it’s what Washington does best. Still, it could do it even better by adopting weighted student funding, ensuring that dollars follow children to their school of choice, with extra cash following students with the greatest needs. . . .

As for its second responsibility, an important bullet waits to be bitten: collect and publish swift, reliable, and comparable data on the performance of the nation’s schools via clear national standards, a rigorous national test, and a common approach to school ratings (e.g., a single definition of “adequate yearly progress”) . . .

Into the “Don’t Do it At All” bucket goes everything else. No more federal mandates on teacher quality. No more prescriptive “cascade of sanctions” for failing schools. No more federal guarantee of school choice for children not being well-served. The states would worry about how to define and achieve greater teacher quality (or, better, teacher effectiveness). The states would decide when and how to intervene in failing schools. The states would develop new capacity for school choice. These are all important, powerful reforms, but they have proven beyond Uncle Sam’s capacity to make happen.

The hate-NCLB crowd would hate Petrilli’s national standards even more, predicts Eduwonk.

On Edspresso, Matthew Ladner of the Goldwater Institute argues NCLB has “jumped the shark,” and advocates a Petrillian “exit strategy.”

Assuming the continuing absence of a renaissance of enlightenment on education policy and federalism, a decent exit strategy to me seems to be to allow states to design their own accountability and sanction regimes through a charter state provision but to require public schools to deliver national norm referenced exams to students in return for federal funds.

Bottom-up accountability — parental choice — ultimately represents a far more promising reform strategy: not a magic bullet, but a linchpin reform.

That wouldn’t please the NCLB critics.

Ken DeRosa of D-Ed Reckoning points to evidence that NCLB is starting to force schools to focus on achievement. In Dallas, the principal’s job has been “re-engineered.”

Gone is the focus on campus operations and administration. Student learning is now the chief concern.

Principals are to be curriculum hawks and instructional coaches, responsible for identifying their schools’ academic shortcomings and devising ways for teachers to address them.

The bureaucratic tasks and paper-pushing requirements of running a school are being delegated to assistants and office staff.

Schools Matter attacks NCLB via Peter Schrag’s Sacramento Bee column, which calls for a “surge” of dollars to make NCLB work.

Schrag echoes Rep. George Miller, one of the Democratic fathers of NCLB: “If NCLB is gone,” as he says, “America’s poor kids will again be forgotten.”

Schools Matter sees “educational genocide” in “chain-gang schools” as poor students are dumped into “the cruel testing crucible of assured failure.”

I think testing students is kind — if the test leads to changes in the way they’re taught so they can learn more. If they achieve proficiency but continue to lag behind more advantaged students, well that would be a huge step forward. The alternative to testing is not a a new war on poverty. It’s patting poor kids on the head, telling them they’re all special and letting them remain ignorant and unskilled.

I don’t think Petrilli’s plan — national standards, good data and weighted funding — are enough to push the states to improve the education of left-behind students. There are too many cherished excuses for failure. I think it’s NCLB — tweaked and polished — or nothing.

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  1. “Gone is the focus on campus operations and administration. Student learning is now the chief concern”…as, of course, it should have been all along. It’s interesting how organizations of all types lose sight of their reasons for existing.

    I read about a woman who was put in charge of a loading/unloading facility (ship/road/rail) for an oil company. It wasn’t working very well; there was a lot of bureaucracy, unhappy employees, and expensive delays for tankers. She asked herself: “How would I run this place if the main objective were to load and unload oil?”…and from thinking about that question, was able to greatly improve both operations and employee happiness.

    But of course, the main objective had *always* been to load and unload oil–there was no other reason for the facility’s existence! Yet this had been largely largely forgotten over time under layers of increasingly-byzantine procedures.

    At least in the private sector, competition puts some limits on the forgetting-the-mission process. In K-12 education, prior to NCLB, there really hasn’t been much of a limit at all.

  2. If the Democrats succeed at shunting NCLB off to the side, what will be left to drive any improvement at all? Before, we had kids all over the place failing, and the best the educrats could do is wail and moan about institutional racism and/or the need for more money. Will we go back to that? Not that we’ve gotten very far from that, I’m afraid….

  3. I’d like to know: do we really believe that absent massive federal interference, American public schools are utterly incapable of properly educating children? Because unless we believe that, unless we believe that NCLB was an absolute necessity and Godsend because prior to the implementation of NCLB, virtually every American educated in our public schools K-12 ended up as drooling, dysfunctional morons (this would include the folks who dreamed up and passed NCLB into law, wouldn’t it?, then there is no excuse for the existance of NCLB or anything like it. Who’d like to step up first and admit that American education turned them into functional idiots?

    If a given school district isn’t doing as well as it could/should, the means for the voter/parents in that district to deal with that lack of performance existed before NCLB and will exist after NCLB, like all save-education-in-one-swell-foop ideas, oozes back into the anti-intellectual swamp from when it crawled. If those voters don’t care, or choose not to exercise their ultimate power over their local schools, no amount of federal hammering and nanny-statism is going to be of help.

    And I feel like I’m banging my head against a wall even mentioning this, but might I be so bold as to suggest that parents and kiddies bear some small responsibility for academic acheivement? Why is it in all of the noise on this topic, we never hear anything about that?

    Sorry folks, but for me, one of the most horrifying sentences in the English language remains “I’m from the federal government and I’m here to help.”