Rethinking No Child Left Behind

April 15, 2010

Eight years ago, the Bush administration and Congress set out to revolutionize public elementary and secondary education.

The lever was Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Act–the single largest source of federal funding for public schools. The trigger was the persistent gap between the academic performance of white, relatively well-off students and the rest, i.e., racial and ethnic minorities,  students from very low-income families and students whose native language wasn’t English. Students with disabilities were on the low side of the gap too.

As the reauthorized Title I proclaimed, no child was to be left behind. Every state would have to test all children annually in reading and math, using its own challenging standards. And every school would be assessed according to whether every student subgroup made adequate year progress toward full proficiency.

Schools that persistently failed to demonstrate AYP for all subgroups would be subject to what amount to sanctions. Parents could send their children to other schools, thus depleting the failing school’s funds. Teachers could be fired, principals replaced, the school converted to a charter school or put into the hands of an outside entity. One way or another, the responsible local education agency had to do something drastic.

People I knew who’d been active in the civil rights movement were very high on No Child Left Behind because they thought it would, at long last, get schools to focus on the academic deficits of racial minorities.

A much broader spectrum of children’s advocates, education experts and business leaders liked it because it promised academic rigor, accountability, more state flexibility, parental involvement and targeted research-based corrective actions. Oh yes, and more federal funding.

We all know what happened. Schools narrowed curricula to focus on instruction in reading and math. Teachers “taught to the test.” Some states relaxed their standards to cool out public concern about bad scores. Prospects of sanctions encouraged administrators to open the exit door for low-achievers.

What with these various changes, scores on state test scores did improve. Scores on the more reliable National Assessment of Educational Progress improved somewhat as well. But race/ethnicity gaps remained nearly as great as before. And little wonder.

As Richard Rothstein, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute says, No Child was based on the view that schools alone could overcome deep-seated social and economic disadvantages and that they hadn’t because teachers just didn’t try hard enough.

It also placed almost exclusive emphasis on two basic skill areas, inadvertently motivating schools to eliminate courses that can engage a broader group of students in the learning enterprise–art, music, social studies, hands-on science, etc. If it didn’t discourage potential gifted teachers from entering the profession, it surely gave those who did an incentive to avoid placements in struggling schools or get out as soon as they could.

Fast forward to 2010. Reauthorization of No Child seems to be back on the agenda–two years after neither the House nor the Senate could agree on a bill. And some interesting things are happening.

On of the most interesting to me is an about-face by Diane Ravitch, one of the architects of the original No Child Left Behind. She’s now published a book tellingly titled The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

Under the current system, she says, we’re measuring what we can–not what matters most. As a result we’ve got a much less holistic approach to education than other successful nations.

Other experts in education and related policy areas have produced what they characterize as a broader, bolder approach to education. The premise here is that schools alone can’t close achievement gaps based on socioeconomic status. We need an expanded concept of education that recognizes the importance of learning before and outside the classroom, combined with a focus on “the whole person” instead of just basic academic skills and a narrow definition of cognitive growth.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is aware of the flaws in No Child. He was, in fact, one of the original co-signers of the broader, bolder approach.

But his remarks on reauthorization suggest he’s now more focused on tougher, broader standards, better tests and greater flexibility for state and local education agencies than in solutions to challenges that are well beyond of purview of public elementary and secondary education systems.

The administration’s priorities are by no means inconsistent with the broader, bolder approach. But I seriously doubt that tweaking No Child will come close to fulfilling the promise in its name.

The administration would need to fold it into a more expansive, integrated approach to child well-being–and to give up the view that carrots and sticks will eliminate social and economic problems that date back to pre-civil rights days.