No Child Left Behind – The Problem Is Not The Policy, It’s Us

Everyone not chattering about the job numbers is chattering about this morning’s New York Times article on No Child Left Behind and the waivers that are increasingly freeing states from its requirements.  In general some waivers were necessary – and some were issued during the Bush Administration, too – because the law was supposed to be reauthorized in 2007 and 2012 is now half over.

But when you read stuff like this line in The Times story, you can’t help but wonder how much of all this is “everybody knows” and how much is based in facts:

“[No Child Left Behind] has been derided for what some regard as an obsessive focus on test results, which has led to some notorious cheating scandals.

Perhaps, but were there cheating scandals before No Child?  Yes.  In fact, it’s been a problem since the beginning of efforts to increase accountability in education. Before we get to that, here’s a quick primer on how the law actually works:

First, states have to establish standards – that was a requirement of President Clinton’s 1994 version of the law.  Some standards are good and useful for educators while others are vague, too voluminous, or an exercise in trivial pursuit.  States then have to test students annual in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. Again, some tests are good, some aren’t.  But – and this is key – what the law requires is that an increasing percentage of students reach the “proficient” level on those tests.  What it means to be proficient varies by state and is often not rigorous at all (pdf).

What the law does not require is that 100 percent of students are proficient.  It doesn’t even have a hard deadline of 2014 because of all the various provisions to give schools credit for making progress.  And all students don’t have to take the tests – there are provisions for the normal absenteeism that occurs, students with serious disabilities, English language learners and so forth.

So what the law actually requires is that – over a 16 year timespan since 2001 – about 92 percent of students achieve the “proficient” level on their state tests in order for their schools to make what’s called “adequate yearly progress.” And the law’s big policy shift was requiring that same level of performance for minority, poor, and other traditionally under-served student groups so schools couldn’t hide behind averages that masked persistent low-performance for some students. Whether the tests have any consequence for students is a state by state decision, the federal law is silent on that.  And the law doesn’t use the term failing.  Schools not making progress are deemed ‘needing improvement.’ That little detail makes it all look a little different given that even average or good schools can need improvement on some measures.

More than a decade after the law’s passage there are a bunch of things that I think should be changed or refined.  When the law was passed states did not have the data systems they do now, for instance.  But here’s the more basic question: When have we ever had a widespread increase in accountability in education without it being a three-ring circus, policymakers walking back from the brink, and a general bemoaning of things?  And how much of all that owes to specifics of policy and how much to broader capacity problems in the system?

Maybe underneath the ins and outs of the waivers the real problem here is that our political system really doesn’t have the tensile strength to sustain a push for accountability over time and our political leaders don’t have the stomach for it or bold enough expectations for our schools.  None of the people cheering or jeering today’s article would put up for a moment with having their own kids in schools that couldn’t generally meet the proficiency bars states have established. That’s something they quietly agree on. This is about other people’s children and what’s good enough for them. And that, rather than any one feature of the policy, is probably the root of the problem.

57 Replies to “No Child Left Behind – The Problem Is Not The Policy, It’s Us”

  1. I have not once heard a parent talk about how they are so happy and thankful that NCLB gave them “transparency”.

    That word is public policy stuff. Anyone who uses it is sitting in an office far from public education at the state or federal level or in some public policy think tank. In fact, using that word may be the ONLY productive thing they do that day.

    Why should I tell them that they are off message and not connecting with parents? I want them to go away and leave math and science alone.

    I was concerned in watching a recent Reason magazine video clip in which an inner city charter school supporter for Chicago said that the school choice movement was “off message” with parents. Why give them bullets for a gun that they cannot aim?

  2. bill, well said. Still, most parents in most schools (white and middle/upper class) are satisfied with their schools, it seems. I’m sure there are some true believers but don’t we know that from 1983 on, school reform was an exercise in political ideology first, making money second (commodifying education) and helping kids third, maybe. And when it came to helping kids, the focus was always more on the class/race aspects of underperformance in schools, not rich, white kids in the ‘burbs not making the grade.

  3. Testing has become outrageous. The pressure that students face in light of schools needing to meet the “proficient” marker is not benefiting student learning at all; it is only hindering it. Students are becoming “tested out” because of the benchmark exams and standardized tests thrown at them every year. They are the ones suffering from this needless requirement. Of course schools need to have accountability for their progress, but to base it on how well students perform on one exam is not an accurate measure of success. There are other factors to consider here: test anxiety, whether a student had a good night sleep or even breakfast, stresses at home, etc. that can all vastly affect their scores. Because of this, schools are then “punished” for means of which they cannot control. Clearly, No Child Left Behind is a contradicting title.

    As a result of the failed attempts of No Child Left Behind, schools that have been given waivers are to focus on college and career readiness which should have been the focus to begin with since, after all, that is why we teach. However, the stigma of student achievement has been taken away from the school districts as a whole and has been attached to individual teachers which is utterly unfair and counterproductive. And we are still back to the original issue: too much testing. There should be multiple measures of improvement taken into account rather than one standardized test. It is unfair to the teacher and it is unfair to the student. It seems as though no one has students’ best interest in mind; after all, it is about getting students to pass one, unfortunate, irrelevant test year after year that proves who is a good test taker and who is not.

  4. Thanks for your informative and perceptive comment. The sad news is the Administration is agreeing to waivers that allow vague and actually unenforceable conditions in the future in return for relief today from pressure for educating disadvantaged kids.Though this article is full of error and ideology, as you point out, it is right about one thing: the pressure from NCLB to educate kids of color and poor kids is severely weakened.I guess we’ll have to wait for 2 or 3 years of NAEP data to see the real impact. But will we have the will or capacity to put Humpty Dumpty back together again then? It’s hard not to be pessimistic.

  5. Nice posting above here.I don’t think too many people DO believe that teachers alone can create a perfect student. Something else is going on now and we can only hope the taxpayers catch on soon.

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