The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was a reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). ESEA was a part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War of Poverty” that funded primary and secondary education. President George W. Bush proposed major changes to ESEA in the form of NCLB in 2001 and signed NCLB into law in 2002. Like ESEA, NCLB focuses on holding schools accountable to keeping children up with clear academic standards. NCLB also continues to effort to narrow the achievement gap between students by emphasizing equality in education. NCLB’s most significant change to ESEA was to give out Title 1 funding, the fund ESEA provides, to public schools with the condition that schools must first administer standardized tests that each state would design to measure basic math and reading skills. Schools receiving funds would have to show that students were making “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP), that is, improving to meet yearly goals.
The public, media, and educators have demonstrated considerable opposition to NCLB largely because of its high standards and heavy reliance on tests. Bush’s senior education advisor and key author of NCLB, B. Alexander “Sandy” Kress, has a different opinion. “I don’t think that there’s any question that it’s been successful,” said Kress in an interview with The Politic. While Kress admitted that the Act has had its shortcomings, he lauded improvements in NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) scores, especially among minority, disabled, and economically disadvantaged students. “[These students] can’t just be swept under the rug the way they could in previous years,” Kress claimed. Indeed, NCLB disaggregates student test scores to examine progress of historically disadvantaged subgroups of students, rather than just taking a simple average of all students in a school. “Educators and principals and constantly now searching for tools, for ways of doing business differently, for interventions, for more effective strategies to ‘get those kids up.’” Kress also noted victories in making results more transparent, collecting better data, spotlighting teacher effectiveness, promoting higher standards, and offering students more options by putting pressure on low-performing schools.
The criticism of NCLB’s accountability measures, that is, measures to ensure that teachers are effectively teaching, concerns cases of “teaching to the test.” In such cases teachers work more towards the goal of getting students to perform well on tests rather than teaching in broader terms. Kress refuted this criticism by asserting that such behavior is not inevitable in NCLB’s testing process. He claims it is rather a result of ineffective teaching to standards in the first place. “Rather than having effective teaching and assessment practice,” Kress stated, “[teachers and administrators] get very anxious, if not desperate, and they try shortcuts like buying a bunch of practice tests, drilling and killing on the tests, and hoping somehow that the student can be made test ready rather than prepared academically.” According to Kress, teachers should work on teaching effectively to state standards so that, by test time, students require minimal preparation. Tests are necessary to ensure that schools have the best teachers who can improve on their technique based on test scores so that students are making good standards-based progress.
Dr. Kevin Welner, professor of education at University of Colorado Boulder, contends that the use of testing in NCLB and now in “Race to the Top” is excessive and therefore harmful. There are different kinds of accountability that the government can promote, and Welner claims that the extent to which NCLB and RTTT focus on test-based accountability is destructive. “What we’ve come to now is this shifting of schooling from a teaching and learning exercise to what is essentially a testing exercise,” commented Welner. While he does think that tests can be productively used as part of an accountability system, he recommends much more circumscribed approaches. For instance, he suggests that schools may administer tests in different subjects every other year, which would allow for states and school districts to detect school-level trends. Instead of relying so heavily on testing, the government should be putting more energy into promoting accountability through conventional supervision and even through a school’s culture. Welner noted, “In a lot of institutions accountability is created through the culture, so that there’s a sense of accountability in terms of interdependence, in terms of being responsible for helping one another achieve. So in well functioning schools, teachers rely on one another and are accountable to one another simply because that is the school culture.” Instilling such a culture should, he explains, be part of a larger system that would involve measures that install high quality administrative leadership, highly qualified teachers, effective teacher preparation programs, resources at the school level, and apprenticeship programs for younger teachers in a school.
Another criticism of NCLB was that it set unreasonable goals and standards. Most notoriously, NCLB established a standard in 2001 that said by 2014, approximately 92% of all students would have test scores judged to be proficient in reading and writing, according to standards set by grade level in each state. Given the progress we have made since 2001, we cannot feasibly reach that goal in a year. Welner and many others thought this goal was unachievable from the very beginning. According to Welner, policies should set high goals, but those goals should not be set beyond the levels achieved by the most successful schools in the past. NCLB demanded test score progress far beyond the realm of even the highest past achievers. In addition, the main problems were lack of funding and lack of supports for teachers and students. Simply demanding higher test scores is not a productive educational policy; successful approaches increase opportunities to learn. Although in the early days of NCLB, schools saw increased funding for the Title 1 program, and the program saw a later temporary bump through stimulus spending, the projected spending increases negotiated as part of NCLB have been consistent ignored. Without providing the required resources for improvement, NCLB was requiring schools to achieve improbable goals by mandate. Welner gave an analogy: “If I put a high-jump bar in front of you that’s at eleven feet tall, no matter how much I scream at you and demand that you clear that bar, you’re not going to. Effectively that’s what NCLB did.”
Kress contended that while the 92% benchmark may have been too high within the allotted time and that the Administration needed to slow down the AYP mechanism. Yet, there were ways to relieve some of the pressure on schools by extending or modifying the deadline. He believes that many of the solutions along those lines would have been better than what President Obama enacted to allow schools to circumvent that standard. What Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan essentially did was to give waivers to states that would give them a reprieve from NCLB’s penalties moving up to the 2014 deadline. In exchange, states would have to comply with Obama’s education initiatives. “It could be the single worst thing [Obama and Duncan] have done and could be so negatively impactful that that single mistake overrides the good they did with the better practices they promoted through Race to the Top,” asserted Kress. He observes that, in terms of accountability, it has started a “race to the bottom” in which states are allowed to deemphasize disaggregation and subgroup achievement. Kress brought up the case of short-lived decisions in some states to set different standards for different subgroups of students. For example, the state would set lower goals for a minority subgroup of students in terms of percent proficiency and higher goals for other subgroups. Kress thinks that this trend of ignoring certain subgroups will grow due to the waivers, undoing the success of NCLB. In the same vein, he also fears a return to aggregation in which schools will only consider averages for an entire class rather than breaking results down on a subgroup basis.
Welner feels that the current administration’s NCLB waivers were necessary, especially since Congress showed no signs of re-authorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (NCLB) and therefore addressing the sanctions problem legislatively. Yet, he disagrees with the administration’s decision to attach conditions that states had to agree to. Effectively, the conditions substituted Obama’s education plans for the NCLB system. He described two problems. Many of the specifics of the administration’s plans, as best illustrated by the Race to the Top program, lack support from research evidence. And he sees a problem with the coercive aspect of the deal. Drawing parallels to the recent NFIB v. Sebelius Supreme Court case on healthcare, he asked, “At what point is the federal government simply providing an incentive or attaching a reasonable condition to a funding package that a state can either decide to accept or reject, and what point does it become impossible for the state to reject the money and therefore the conditions become coercion?” It is unclear, he cautioned, whether the Supreme Court would draw the same conclusion with the NCLB waivers that it did with Medicare. But pursuant to the same principle, he finds the policy very troubling.
According to Kress, one of the most important things we can learn from NCLB as we go forward with Race to the Top is that simply passing legislation is rather meaningless. It is possible, without actually breaking the law, to ignore such education legislation. Race to the Top has been successful in apportioning money out to certain states, though the follow-up and enforcing consequences will be a challenge. Thus, it’s too early to tell if Race to the Top will be an improvement on NCLB. Kress claimed, “The victory will be when there’s changed practice and better student results.”
Aaron Mak is a freshman in Berkeley College