Passive Aggressive NCLB Implementation

Today’s papers, linked below, provide a refreshingly insightful look at No Child Left Behind and may signal yet another change in the popular debate about the law. Yet although No Child’s vocal opponents get most of the ink, a second quieter and possibly more debilitating campaign against the law is going on, let’s call it “Literal and Passive Aggressive NCLB Implementation.”

What’s happening is that rather than think creatively about how to make the law work, some states and school districts are implementing it with an eye toward making it fall under its own weight. For example, while a few states designed accountability systems avoiding obvious Catch-22s with English language learners who are ultimately reclassified once they learn English, many states simply designed systems guaranteed to ensure a perpetually failing subgroup.

Why? Well in some cases it might be the capacity issues raised by Marc Tucker and Tom Toch in this article or the concerns raised by Rick Hess in this book. But, more likely it is seen in many cases as a good way to poke at the feds. In this William Raspberry column the principal of Langley High School in Fairfax County says as much.

What are other examples of passive aggressive resistance? An obvious one is failure to clearly delineate the reasons why schools are identified as “needing improvement.” States release a list of schools needing improvement that includes the most dreadful schools and overall good schools with small problems all on the same list. [In fairness, some state leaders that have made an effort to delineate, like Michigan’s Tom Watkins, were thwarted by press accounts that still reported the list as monolithic.] Or, rather than make a serious effort to address disparities in teacher quality or attract highly qualified teachers to challenging schools states and school districts just stir the pot decrying the unfairness of the requirement that teachers know something about the subject they teach.

Similarly, rather than think creatively about how to make the public school choice provisions work by expanding the number of available seats through charter schools or by using interdistrict arrangements, often the response is purely literal resulting in many frustrated parents and accounts in the press of the law’s futility. [Eduwonk thinks this last tactic is particularly boneheaded because it’s less likely to provoke a backlash against NCLB than feed support for vouchers.]

Likewise, when states start making interventions in low-performing schools (something they were required to do under the 1994 law preceding NCLB although few did) many may do little to tailor these interventions to the specifics of each case, for instance whether one or two subgroups or an entire school is having problems. Instead, they’ll wield blunt force in an effort to gin up resistance to the law. “What! They’re going to fire all the teachers at Lilly White High because of No Child Left Behind? Damn the feds!”

Though the NEA’s disinformation campaign has succeeded in moving public opinion numbers about NCLB, particularly because there is no serious counter-campaign to get the facts out, the public still remains largely supportive. But the passive aggressive implementation strategy could change all that in coming years particularly if, when faced with lame efforts to make the law work, the media does not vigorously ask “why not?” instead of taking things at face value.

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