May 23, 2024

Every Child Left Behind

I love the federal laws Congress passes: they always have such vivid, meaningful names, names that simply scream, “If you don’t support me you must be a ______”. Just let your imagination fill in the blank. The Patriot Act? You’ve got to be for that. No Child Left Behind? Only the grinch or a Islamic terrorist would be against kids’ education.

The problem is, of course, that these names are pure marketing. The Patriot Act vastly increased the intrusive powers of the Feds while doing virtually nothing to make us safer from terrorism. And No Child Left Behind has done only one thing: make sure that everyone has some sort of mediocrity to manage toward.

In fact, Matthew Ladner, Ph.D., vice-president for research at the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute said at

In essence, NCLB will require all students to pass all tests, or else the federal government will sanction those schools. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see where this is going. To avoid sanctions, states have already begun watering down their tests.

The best way to illustrate this sad phenomenon is to compare state test scores against the long-standing, well-respected National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The NAEP, also know as the Nation’s Report Card, has been given to representative samples of students in all states for decades. It judges the relative performance of states in a variety of academic subjects.

The discrepancy between NAEP and NCLB scores is stark. In Arizona, for example, more than twice as many eighth-graders score “proficient” on the state’s reading test than on the NAEP. For African-American and Hispanic students, the discrepancy is even worse: five times as many of these students score proficient on the state exam as compared to the NAEP.

Ladner goes on the quote some truly sad statistics about how low the standards have become and then blames the problem on the stick-first approach of NCLB: failing students = no money for the school district.

Somehow it seems inevitable that we arrived at this sorry state. Education reform is a complicated business, but it’s not so complicated that ordinary Americans don’t understand that a test like Georgia’s 3rd grade reading exam (on which there were 16 “gimme” questions and only required 17 correct answers to pass) are not what was promised by NCLB and are not what is needed – not by a damn long shot – for American children to compete with foreign students.

Not necessarily. Although he’s come to believe that after seeing the program in action for a few years, Mike Petrilli, formerly of the Bush education team and now back with the Fordham Foundation, recently wrote:

I’ve gradually and reluctantly come to the conclusion that NCLB as enacted is fundamentally flawed and probably beyond repair.

Of course, I harbored doubts about certain specifics from the beginning. You didn’t have to be a genius to see the “highly qualified teachers” mandate as a huge overreach and a probable failure, as it took a reasonable notion (teachers should know their stuff) and tried to enforce it through a rigid rule-based mechanism (second guessing principals who, for instance, hired engineers as math teachers). Nor was it hard to determine that asking all states to reach universal “proficiency” by 2014 but allowing them to define “proficiency” as they saw fit would create a race to the bottom.

That’s the voice of someone who ought to know. And perhaps ought to have known better, as he goes on to say later in the article.

Although both Ladner and Petrilli would radically change its current implementation, neither are ready to give up on NCLB. Despite the current, flawed implementation, neither should Americans be ready to give up on its tenets, which, as described by Petrilli, are:

  • that it’s the education system’s job to make sure they achieve a reasonable level of proficiency in reading and math by the time they turn 18
  • that everyone benefits from having someone looking over his shoulder and that schools and school systems need external pressure — i.e., accountability — in order to improve
  • that good education is synonymous with good teaching…but which today’s education bureaucracies, licensure rules, ed schools, and union contracts too often impede
  • that giving parents choices within the education system has all kinds of positive benefits
  • that improving education is a national imperative, and that the federal government can and should play a constructive role

In a single sentence I’d put it thusly: Our children need to be given the opportunity to keep pace with the rest of the world and we’re losing the race at the moment in most of our schools.

The federal government cannot manage from Washington the daily curriculum and teaching strategies of a nation – this is impossible. Withholding funding is a no-win situation, as described above.

So what is Washington’s role? In my opinion it is to set national standards for academic proficiency, provide funding to local districts, and get the heck out of the way until there’s a train wreck that demands intervention.

National standards should be solely defined by the Feds so that states and local districts cannot lower difficulty levels to suit themselves. This will undoubtedly cause much fear and anxiety at the local level. As unfortunate as this is, the fact is that math is math no matter where one lives in this country. There’s no good reason why there should be a different minimum standard in New York than there is in West Virginia or Alaska.

Funding, it seems to me, should be delivered to local districts to ensure the minimum standards discussed previously are met. Initially this means that poorer schools will have to be given more money so they can acquire the infrastructure they need to do the job. This should not be a permanent entitlement, however. Within a fixed, mid-term period – say 10 years – funding should be distributed on a per-headcount basis.

This funding should never be in jeopardy based on student performance. This is punishing students for the failure of the system and makes little sense. Instead of removing funds from failing districts, the Feds should assume responsibility for failing institutions, either directly or through their proxies. That is true accountability. The message to boards, principals, and some teachers: produce acceptable results or lose your jobs.

Teachers unions would have a fit over this sort of regulation. But there is nothing about the teaching profession that exempts it from the primary law of civilization: produce or die. Virtually every profession and every employee operates under this law; educators should not be treated differently.

Note that this idea imposes accountability on the federal government as well as local districts. When the Feds take over a failing district it is their responsibility to produce results where the previous administration failed. No longer is the Department of Education simply an ivory tower of D.C. bureaucrats issuing vague mandates and obscure, impractical rules. They will be out there in the trenches getting their hands dirty and seeing some or even most of their ideas failing, just like every other educator.

These may sound like radical ideas. But that’s far from the truth. If anything they do not go far enough. There’s no guarantee that these reforms would produce results that are significant enough to be an end-state of NCLB.

But we have to start somewhere. Otherwise this program will continue to devolve – as it is doing now – until it would be more aptly called “Every Child Left Behind.”


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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