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No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965-2005

reviewed by Aaron Cooley - March 29, 2007

coverTitle: No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965-2005
Author(s): Patrick J. McGuinn
Publisher: University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS
ISBN: 0700614435, Pages: 260, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

The opening of this year brought renewed attention to federal educational policy. The controversial No Child Left Behind Act once again became center stage on the nations domestic policy agenda. However, there are obvious and glaring differences between the United States political climate when the law was signed and that of the present day. From the Democrats gaining control of the House of Representatives to President Bushs ill-conceived war in Iraq, the national political arena has certainly seen some significant changes, which will have an impact on any alterations to the law.

One of the opening salvos of this political cycle was a report released by President Bushs second Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings,1 which was titled Building on Results: A Blueprint for Strengthening The No Child Left Behind Act.2 The essence of the report mirrors its title, stating clearly that the Bush Administration sees that progress has been achieved because of the law, but that some changes are warranted. As the Congressional session proceeds, it seems unlikely that the bipartisan coalition that originally brought No Child Left Behind to life will be working towards the same goals this time.

Yet, the distance in time from the initial passage of the act does give one a chance to evaluate the law without the glare of earlier events. Patrick McGuinns No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965-2005 accomplishes this task in a stellar fashion. As a political scientist, McGuinns early insights are framed by a discussion of perspectives on policy change. These sections are of interest, but they retreat from memory faster than the historically rich and politically astute narrative that he weaves about early federal involvement in education to the federal governments most recent efforts. The central target that McGuinn strives to hit is a better and more robust understanding of how federal educational policy came to be and how the personalities and institutions of American government shaped this process resulting in the No Child Left Behind Act. McGuinn stresses what he sees to be a key part of this story: A central theme of this study is that public opinion played a major role in the transformation of federal education policy and that public opinion on swing issues has become a powerful force in American politics and policymaking more generally (p. 20).

To begin this process of understanding public opinion and the effect it had on policymakers, McGuinn returns to earlier legislation for a comparison. He states:

The original ESEA [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] was narrowly targeted (to disadvantaged students), focused on inputs (providing additional resources to schools), and contained few federal mandates. In contrast, NCLB [No Child Left Behind] embraces a much broader scope (it applies to all schools and students), is focused on outputs (measuring academic performance), and is remarkably prescriptive. (p. 1)

McGuinns characterization paints the differences between the laws in real and stark terms. Further, it displays the remarkable change in thinking about how the federal government should involve itself in contributing to the education of its citizens.

The next move in the text is to counter the commonly held beliefs that many political pundits and scholars put forward as the reasons No Child Left Behind became law. After analyzing each perspective in turn, McGuinn concludes by saying: these interpretations of the origins of NCLB underestimate the cause and extent of the political shifts in the Democratic and Republican parties in education over the long term (p. 9). As the text moves forward McGuinn builds on this initial thought about the political shifts in parties germane to education.

To illustrate how the parties began to shift, McGuinn establishes the bases upon which the parties began their political efforts on federal educational policy. A key period for the coalescing of strong party distinctions came after President Jimmy Carter left office and was replaced by President Ronald Reagan. Reagan was interested in getting rid of the newly created Department of Education and limiting the federal governments role in what he saw as a local or state matter. As such, Reagan was surprised by the report from a commission on the state of American education. McGuinn relays this surprise in the following anecdote:

The Reagan White House was initially at a loss as to how to respond to the [Nation at Risk] report&In fact, requests by the commission to present the report formally to the president at the White House were initially rejected. In the end, however, Reagan received the report at a Rose Garden ceremony in which he praised the report for its call to eliminate the Department of Education and for its support of vouchers, tuition tax credits, and school prayer, none of which the report actually endorsed. (p. 43)

The long-term strategy of the Reagan White House was to continue to draw attention to the poor quality of American education and to those bureaucrats who continued to support what Reagan considered a broken system. However, this effort was too successful from the Republican perspective, as McGuinn relays:

But rather than resulting in increased public support for a reduction in the federal role in education, Republican rhetoric increased the salience of education in national politics and among the electorate and helped to generate momentum for increased federal leadership in school reform. (p.49)

Here, we can observe that the legacy of previous political efforts shaped the policy arena of education, but we also can see that it is not always easy to control the outcomes of political campaigns to paint issues in one light or another.

The next era that McGuinn discusses is that of the Presidential Administration of George H. W. Bush. Bush was much less ideological and more practical than Reagan. Bush also needed resonating political issues in order to retain the electoral majorities that Reagan had enjoyed in his campaigns for President. Bushs answer to Americas education woes was:

America 2000 [which] was a moderate and pragmatic plan that called for active federal leadership to promote school reform through a new focus on student achievement. As a centrist plan, however, it alienated some on both the right and the left. (p. 66)

Here, we can see a strong contrast between the policies advocated by Reagan and the policies supported by Bush. However, they did share a similar attitude about education in at least the following respect: Bushlike Reagan before himdid much to increase media and public attention to the crisis in U.S. schools and thus helped make school reform a high-profile national issue (p.73). Again, the critical role of a public campaign to affect how voters perceive educational issues was a significant part of their shared political strategy.

With 12 years of Republican rule from the Presidency, it would seem that Democrat Bill Clinton would have thoroughly altered the countrys federal education policy. Yet, part of Clintons electability was his moderate, centrist approach, which was born out in his policies. McGuinn puts Clintons appeal this way:

Clintons credibility as an education reformerand as a New Democratwas bolstered by his record of innovation in Arkansas. As governor, he secured passage of the countrys first mandatory teacher competency test, student achievement testing, a statewide open enrollment (public choice) program, and annual report cards of school performance. (p. 79)

Clinton was well aware of the policy environment into which he was entering upon taking office. His efforts at educational reform in many ways were an extension of the efforts started in George H. W. Bushs Administration. Here, we can see the power of the centrist coalition working as a dominant force. In many ways, this continuation should not be surprising as Clinton had worked with Bush when he was a Governor on educational reform. Further, we should not then be surprised by the commonalities between the Administrations regarding education when we look at their efforts. McGuinn is unequivocal about the nature of Clintons new plans for federal education policy:

Clintons Goals 2000 proposal called for the creation of voluntary national standards and assessments based on the six national education goals outlined in America 2000&Many observers were tempted to see Clintons Goals 2000 plan as merely a repackaged and renamed version of America 2000and indeed the bills similarities were played up by the Clinton administration in seeking Republican support. (p. 85-86)

One can conclude that the differences between the recent leaders of each party on education were not in fact very substantial and often ancillary to the main line of standards and accountability. Additionally, this centrist faction continued to increase public attention on education resulting in it playing a larger than usual role in the 2000 presidential election.

The public, throughout the ascendance of education as a policy issue, had trusted Democrats more than Republicans. George W. Bush and his advisors saw an opportunity to poach moderate, business minded individuals away from the Democrats. As a Governor, he had backed educational reforms that pushed accountability and incentives.3 This public campaign to suggest that a Bush Administration would overhaul Americas educational system worked better than most observers speculated it could. McGuinn sees the results of Bushs efforts in the following way:

Although Bushs victory cannot be attributed to a single issue or factor, it is clear that his effort to recast the Republican Partys conservative image and to address the partys historic disadvantage on the education issue was largely successful and played an important role in the election. (p. 162)

Therefore, Bushs win was another step forward for the centrist coalition that saw standards and accountability as the best way to educational reform. One could optimistically imagine federal educational policy under Gore would have been substantially different, but considering the recent history on this policy issue, this optimism might be misplaced.

Having explored the historical antecedents to No Child Left Behind, McGuinn addresses the law directly. He states what he considers to be the most important aspect of the changes to federal education policy:

At the heart of the bill was a fundamental trade-offit put in place a number of prescriptive new mandates on states and school districts but in exchange for meeting new demands gave them greater flexibility in how they use increased federal funds. The most important requirements in the new law are that states must adopt academic standards to guide their curricula and adopt a testing and accountability system that is aligned with those standards. (p. 177-178)

The changes that No Child Left Behind created are considered to be a revolution by many observers, including Secretary Spellings. However, in many ways, it is only the latest part of a continuing evolution in federal educational policy as McGuinn so adeptly illustrates through the many policy periods prior to the passage of No Child Left Behind.

Overall, McGuinns work provides an extremely useful and thoroughly researched volume on how federal educational policy has come into being over the past decades. Further, it is written in a lively and engaging style that marks it as a standout among similar texts. Yet, the most important aspect of the work is what it suggests for the future of educational policynamely that increased federal control through No Child Left Behind is creating a profound legacy that will influence all future reform efforts at the federal, state, and local levels.


1 Much has been made of Ms. Spellings increased accessibility and less abrasive attitude, as compared to her predecessor, Dr. Rod Paige. An example of this more pleasant public face of the Department of Education was an appearance she made on Celebrity Jeopardy, in which, sadly, she lost to Michael McKean (a.k.a. Lenny from Laverne and Shirley.)

2 For the full report, see the Department of Educations Web site at: www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/nclb/buildingonresults.html

3 The Texas Miracle and Houston Miracle have been questioned and, in many eyes, discredited as the successes they were portrayed to have been.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 29, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13994, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 3:57:57 PM

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About the Author
  • Aaron Cooley
    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    E-mail Author
    AARON COOLEY holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has mentored, tutored, and taught students in a diverse range of educational settings. Previously, he worked at the North Carolina General Assembly. His writing has appeared in Educational Studies, Educational Theory, Essays in Education, International Journal of Philosophical Studies, Journal of Popular Culture, and Teachers College Record. Aaron is dedicated to improving the educational and economic opportunities of all Americans through innovative ideas in public policy.
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