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NCLB and Its Wake: Bad News for Democracy


by David E. Meens & Kenneth R Howe — 2015

Background: Local control has historically been a prominent principle in education policymaking and governance. Culminating with the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), however, the politics of education have been nationalized to an unprecedented degree, and local control has all but disappeared as a principle framing education policymaking. During the same period, policies imposed upon locales by state and federal governments have shifted from an emphasis on equity to accountability.

Purpose: This paper examines what the eclipse of local control through NCLB and related policies means for democracy.

Research Design: Drawing upon contemporary normative democratic theory, we distinguish two dimensions of democracy that are at issue—democratic policymaking and democratic education—and conclude that the effect of NCLB has been to frustrate democracy along both of these dimensions.

Findings: In terms of democratic policymaking, we argue that NCLB oversteps the boundaries that may be legitimately imposed upon local participation in policymaking on the basis of democratic principles. In terms of democratic education, we show how NCLB undermines both the content and the context of schooling likely to inculcate the skills, knowledge, and dispositions required for meaningful participation in democratic politics.

Conclusions: Based upon this analysis, we offer a set of guidelines to aid in the assessment of future federal education policy vis a vis democracy. First, reform efforts should embrace a participatory model for engaging local communities. Second, curriculum standards adopted by states and locales should include a conscious and substantive focus on developing the deliberative skill and dispositions required of democratic citizenship. Third, efforts must be made to keep individuals and organizations that receive public funds accountable to the public through democratic procedures. Fourth, reform efforts must seek ways to more adequately and equitably finance schools. Fifth, the goal of better integrating schools across important categories of social difference should be revitalized in order to help ensure access to equal educational opportunities and the diverse context of learning that all students need for the inculcation of democratic character.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 6, 2015, p. 1-44
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17878, Date Accessed: 12/12/2017 6:50:51 PM

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About the Author
  • David Meens
    University of Colorado Boulder
    E-mail Author
    DAVID E. MEENS is a Ph.D. candidate and instructor with the University of Colorado Boulder’s School of Education and INVST Community Studies program. His research focuses on the intersection of current U.S. public school reform initiatives, education research methodology, and democratic theory. Recent publications include papers in Philosophy of Education 2013 and 2012 and a book, co-authored with Gene Glass, David Berliner, and associates, 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education.
  • Kenneth Howe
    University of Colorado Boulder
    E-mail Author
    KENNETH R. HOWE is a professor in the School of Education, University of Colorado Boulder. He specializes in professional ethics, philosophy and educational research, and evaluation and policy research. Professor Howe has conducted research and published more than 70 articles and chapters on a variety of topics, ranging from the quantitative/qualitative debate to a philosophical examination of constructivism to a defense of multicultural education. His recent research has focused on educational equality and justice, exemplified by The Dominant Conception of Educational Equality: Ideal and Ideology (2014 Philosophy of Education Society presidential address) and the nature of scientific research in education, exemplified by Philosophy of Education and Other Educational Sciences (2014 Theory and Research in Education).
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