Leave no (none, zero, nada) child behind?

Passed by Congress in late 2001 and signed by President George W. Bush one year after his inauguration, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is the most ambitious federal education statute ever.

After five years of experience with a statute that aims to produce "universal proficiency" (in math and reading, mainly in grades 3-8) by 2014, and with reauthorization looming, it's time to draw some conclusions about how NCLB has unfolded on the ground--and how it ought to be changed.

Much has been written about NCLB's particular testing regimen. Far less has been written about the law's remedies, whereby a Title I school that fails to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) is subject to a parade of stiffening interventions designed to change it and give new options to its students. Our new book pries into this facet of NCLB to examine these remedies and their effectiveness (you can read more about our findings here and here).

But as Congress sets about reauthorizing the law, diving into its innards to tweak this and that, it will pay insufficient heed to NCLB's main problem, which is not concerned with tests or remedies but with philosophy.

The law began with the noble yet naïve promise that every U.S. schoolchild will attain "proficiency" in reading and math by 2014. While there is no doubt that the number of "proficient" students can and should increase dramatically from today's 30-ish percent (using the National Assessment definition of proficiency), and while the achievement of children below the proficient level also can and should rise closer to proficiency, no educator in America believes that universal proficiency will, in fact, be attained by 2014, not, at least, by any reasonabled definition of proficiency. Only politicians promise such things. The inevitable result is cynicism and frustration among educators and a "compliance" mentality among state and local officials. (See here, here, and here.)

At its heart, today's NCLB amounts to a civil rights manifesto dressed up as an accountability system. This provides an untenable basis for serious reform, as if Congress declared that every last molecule of water or air pollution would vanish by 2014, or that all American cities would be crime-free by that date.

There is evidence from states such as Florida and California that the act is causing them to restructure reasonably good schools, to confound their own pre-existing (and sometimes superior) accountability regimens, and to fracture coherent school improvement strategies. NCLB is also pushing states to move aggressively in too many schools at once, ensuring that capacity won't be up to the challenges at hand.

Whatever the political value of promising to "leave no child behind," the results thus far threaten to undermine two decades of hard-won gains on educational accountability. NCLB's dogmatic aspirations and cobbled-together design are producing a compliance-driven regimen that recreates the very pathologies it was intended to solve.

It's time to relearn the lessons of the Great Society, when ambitious programs designed to promote justice and opportunity were undone by utopian formulations, unworkable implementation structures, and a stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge the limits of federal action in the American system. In the end, Washington is not well-positioned to effect radical change in a sphere that depends primarily on state and local action, or successfully to require states and districts to adopt measures whose efficacy hinges on gusto and creativity rather than compliance.

No matter how finely the legislative craftsmen tune NCLB 2.0, powerful cultural and political forces will continue to impede school improvement. A sense of urgency and outsized aspirations is commendable, but there's a world of difference between determination and delusion. We have spent forty years since the LBJ era learning how hard school reform actually is. Yet too many otherwise serious people, such as the members of the Aspen-based NCLB Commission, sustain that pretense, indeed worsen it by suggesting that sixty-plus technocratic changes and considerably more federal control will cure what ails the law.

Wrong. What Washington can do best, given the structure of the American federal system, is deploy its "bully pulpit" to change the political climate, set common standards, collect and disseminate data, cultivate research and technical expertise, nurture pioneering state efforts and cast a spotlight upon them, and promote a clear understanding of what constitutes unacceptable school performance. Given different machinery, Washington might be able to do more. Until that day comes, however, responsible governance demands that the feds do what they can do well-and not sacrifice hard-won gains in the service of sloganeering.

This piece was adapted from No Remedy Left Behind: Lessons from a Half-decade of NCLB, recently published by the AEI press. This book will be discussed at a forum on October 16th (see here).

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