Improving 'No Child Left Behind'

Barack Obama and John McCain haven’t said what they’d do about No Child Left Behind. Fordham’s Mike Petrilli has specific ideas.

Right now, NCLB micromanages the formula and timelines by which schools are labeled and sanctioned, yet it allows states total discretion over the academic standards and tests used to judge schools (and kids) in the first place. These should be flipped. Provide incentives for states to sign up for rigorous nationwide (not federal) standards and tests. Make the results of this testing publicly available, sliced every which way by school and group. But then allow states and districts (or private entities, such as to devise their own school labels and ratings – and let them decide what to do with schools that need help.

Richard Kahlenberg of Century Foundation and co-authors offer other ideas for strengthening NCLB.

Update: Eduwonk jumps in to the debate, arguing that NCLB has done a good job of identifying schools that need to improve.

About Joanne


  1. doesn’t the unfortunate history of flexible state standards mean that leaving the timeline for action up to the states would result in “slip-shod” intervention?

  2. Homeschooling Granny says:

    RE: “rigorous nationwide (not federal) standards”

    What will the standards be and who will set them? I ask because I’ve just been reading some things said and written by William Ayers to the effect that all education is political and that children need to be taught that the present US system is inherently unjust and racist.

    I was stunned by what I read. I thought education was about teaching children to read with comprehension and the ability to evaluate what they read, to reason mathematically and scientifically, to know a basic outline of world geography and history as well as US history and the fundamentals of our government, and, in a phrase: to think.

    I doubt that I could sign on to standards set by Professor Ayers.

    Is there any way that national standards could be created without a huge, bitterly divisive, hate-filled fight?

  3. HSG:

    I think it is reasonably certain that William Ayers would not be writing national standards. There are national models from various professional groups: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, National Science Teachers Assn, etc. These are not without controversy. As states each set their own standards, frequently the controversy was responded to by including something for everyone, with problematic results. Most states have long, ungainly sets of standards that cram far too much material in to each grade level and repeat the same topics too many times. Translating standards into coherent curriculum (they are not the same thing) is a weakness–so teachers instead teach to the test.

    I am not opposed to national standards as a concept–but it would seem that having stepped into the standards movement with state level standards it would make more sense to continue at that level with perhaps and eventual evolution to something more nationally oriented. One would hope that states, having experienced the keep everybody happy version, would be moving towards leaner, more sensible standards (and there is some evidence that this is so, as states start borrowing from Singapore and others).

    Just as an aside–this might be a good time to reread Jonathon Kozol’s “With an Empty Spoon,” recounting his first year teaching in Boston. He was not allowed to use Langston Hughes “Madam” poems with his students–who were black. The thinking was that they would get too stirred up by reading poetry that focused on racial injustice of any kind. I’m with you on the aim of education (which, I also agree with Ayers, is inherently political) is to read critically and analytically. One problem, of course, is that some of that reading and analysis is likely to arrive at the conclusion that there is less justice available in the world than we would like to suppose.

  4. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Thanks, Margo/Mom,
    Do you see some states as capable of creating standards, and then curriculums, that other states could copy?

    My fear is that people seeking to use schools to promote some particular viewpoint of theirs undermine schools by generating polarizing animosities. For instance, I’ve been practically attacked (verbally) on the question of how I would evolution. Basically, I don’t. Since I want my grandchildren to learn a scientific approach of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, conclusions, and more testing, I hadn’t even thought about evolution. I’m doing science fair type projects that can be done in the home. I was stunned that this would be criticized.

    RE: The question raised by educators of the Ayers type. How can people who don’t want to deal with social problems at all and people who want a revolution agree on standards and curriculum? It seems to me that with the polarization comes paralysis.

  5. Margo/Mom says:


    From what I have heard, Massachussetts is a leader in the standards/assessment arena in the US. Generally they stack up well in comparison to NAEP and international assessments.

    I don’t know if any state leads in curriculum development. Most of the states that I am aware of leave that in the hands of locals–which allows them to sidestep some of the controversies. Until very recently (the advent of standards), this was further devolved to the classroom level. Textbook manufacturers have had a huge influence on curriculum–and again many states leave textbook selection to individual districts (and then teachers got to pick and choose what they wanted to teach). California is more prescriptive–which is why many textbook companies align with California.

    The evolution question has been pretty ugly in many states, including my own. I would suggest, however, that eliminating evolution (even at the elementary level) really pulls the legs out from under anything related to biology. It’s pretty foundational.

  6. Homeschooling Granny says:

    I see evolution as theoretical, not experimental, and too reliant upon authority. I’ve no problem finding biology projects that are hands on. I don’t even know what I think about evolution anymore. I used to believe in it in an automatic, unexamined way until it be such a hot topic and I read Michael Behe’s “Darwin’s Black Box” about irreducible complexity on the cellular level as discovered by electron microscopes. Maybe when the girls are older I’ll have them debate both sides of the controversy. In any case, I’m more interested in the question of whether or not Popper’s standard of falsifiability is too stringent.

    –enjoying this thread, hope others are too.

  7. tim-10-ber says:

    Design standards to excel on the NAEP or other international testing — seems simple to me and long over due.

    The states and local school districts do nothing in most cases but make the matters of better quality education worse. There are some districts that truly try and excel. Which ones are they? How do they do it and how can those successes be replicated? Makes good sense to me —

    Public education is broken and has succeeded in its mission — dumbling down the public — duh!

  8. superdestroyer says:

    Tie test performance not to the school but to the student. Give every high school student a vigourous national exam and then make applying for a federal job, getting a federal loan, or attending any four year university that accepts federal funds contingent of an adequate score of the federal graduation exam.

    Once students with high schools diplomas realize that they are worthy without federal validation, the students and the parents will insist on improvements.

  9. HSG:  You’ve fallen for the ID propaganda campaign.  Please look at this review of DBB at; more debunking here.  You should also realize that the “textbook” the movement was pushing, “Of Pandas and People”, was written as an explicitly creationist tract; the final version was changed mostly by substitution of the phrase “design proponents” for “creationists”, as proven by evidence from early drafts presented in the trial of Kitzmiller vs. Dover.

    Evolution is the single unifying principle of biology, and a great deal of it (principles, not specific developments) can be and has been demonstrated in the lab.  If you omit it because of the objections of an organization whose members sign a statement of adherence to narrow theological principles, you’re doing your grandchildren a grave disservice.

  10. Homeschooling Granny says:

    I do believe in evolution, especially microevolution. But the picture on the cellular level is more complicated then Darwin thought. I don’t believe in ID. I just see a great many questions as unanswered. Did evolution happen step-by-genetic step, or might it have happened suddenly, as by chromosome folding, splitting and reattaching in a different configuration?

    I’m teaching science as a disciplined way of thinking: observation, hypothesis, testing, more hypotheses and theories, and more experimentation. I will teach Popper’s standard of falsification and the criticism of it.

    I don’t know how to do experimental evolution. Does anybody? Of course the girls are going to read about evolution. I’m not going to give them an answer on this as I don’t have one myself. I want to teach how to think, not what to think.

  11. Margo/Mom says:


    I recall–back in biology in hs, that fruitflies are generally used for genetic experimentation since they have multiple generations so quickly. I don’t believe that even this allows you to observe evolution–a very SLOW process, but it does allow for setting up conditions that are favorable for natural selection.

  12. Homeschooling Granny says:

    RE fruitflies, there is no problem demonstrating microevolution. There are problems around the origin of life, the creation of new species and of irreducibly complex systems. Evolution as currently envisioned cannot explain a great deal and I suspect that there are other factors, other explanations, awaiting discovery. And, no, I’m not falling into ID. There are other options.
    When I start to teach science, evolution is not what I look to as a good example of observation and testing without relying on authority.

  13. Quoth Homeschooling Granny:

    I do believe in evolution, especially microevolution.

    Do you think there’s some limit of “microevolution” beyond which organisms cannot go, as if they’re forever bound to some distant ancestor by a phenotypical bungee cord?

    But the picture on the cellular level is more complicated then Darwin thought.

    Of course it is.  Darwin didn’t even know about Mendelian inheritance; his key insight was natural selection among heritable variations.  That insight is still valid even though the particulars of his original theory have long since been supplanted by better and more detailed work.  The point is, if he was wrong, later discoveries would have contradicted him.  Instead, what do we have:Discovery of chromosomes:  consistent with natural selection.
    Discovery of DNA:  consistent with natural selection.
    Discovery of double-helix structure:  consistent.
    Discovery of point, insertion, deletion and translocation mutations:  consistent.
    Discovery of plasmid exchange, endosymbiosis, reverse transcription…. all consistent.
    In science (as opposed to e.g. philosophy), theories which are seriously wrong in the concept (like phlogiston) don’t hold up to new data and do not retain adherents.  Even fringe theories rapidly gain currency if evidence supports them; plate tectonics and quantum chromodynamics are examples which have arisen since you were born.  If evolution was wrong in any essentials, it wouldn’t be around.

    I just see a great many questions as unanswered.

    I think you’ll find that there are a lot more answers than you ever knew existed.

    Did evolution happen step-by-genetic step, or might it have happened suddenly, as by chromosome folding, splitting and reattaching in a different configuration?

    Evolution on the molecular level occurs largely by recombination, but mutations go on at every level from individual DNA bases to duplication of entire genomes (which happens both naturally and artifically in plants).  The major difference between humans and the other great apes is a fusion of two ape chromosomes to form the human chromosome 2, which has two centromeres and telomere sequences in the middle just as you’d expect from two chromosomes pasted end-to-end.

    I don’t know how to do experimental evolution. Does anybody?

    Scientists have been running evolutionary experiments in the laboratory on everything from bacteria to replicating RNA fragments to computer simulations of organisms.  Some of the latter have been written up in layman’s journals like Scientific American; I would not be surprised if application software is available for your PC as part of some university undergrad course.  Heck, genetic algorithms have found their way into all kinds of engineering, to optimize things in ways that mere humans (blinded by preconceptions) would never think to do.  That’s the value of randomness; it will explore avenues that no systematic approach less than exhaustive search would get to.

    This is just stuff off the top of my head.  There’s vastly more proof out there that I have never heard of because I’m not a biologist and don’t read the literature.  Suffice it to say that giving your grandkids the impression that there’s something wrong with evolution (and by extention the entire practice of biological research) you’re doing them no favors.

    I want to teach how to think, not what to think.

    Along the way you probably ought to look at the reasons why biologists are such vehement advocates of evolution.  They’re good thinkers, and the peer-review process of science is extremely good at weeding out errors; if your granddaughters understand the evidence and logic behind the conclusions, they’ll be head-and-shoulders above 99% of their peers.

    (I’m not sure if the bullet lists are going to display properly, but I’m not going to edit out the code for them.)


  1. […] Here is the original: Improving ‘No Child Left Behind’ […]