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NCLB at the Crossroads: Reexamining the Federal Effort to Close the Achievement Gap

reviewed by Gary Galluzzo - October 13, 2009

coverTitle: NCLB at the Crossroads: Reexamining the Federal Effort to Close the Achievement Gap
Author(s): Michael A. Rebell and Jessica R. Wolff
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807749443, Pages: 312, Year: 2009
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At a time when the U.S. Department of Education is ready to launch the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965 (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind, here is a volume that, if read closely, can inform policymakers that it is not NCLB at the “crossroads” as the title suggests, but the purpose of American education itself is at a crossroads. In the ten chapters of NCLB at the Crossroads: Reexamining the Federal Effort to Close the Achievement Gap, well-informed scholars and analysts detail what needs to be fixed in NCLB to put the right policy structure in place to accomplish its goals.

The reauthorization of ESEA is more a social policy problem than the political problem it is often portrayed to be. There is general agreement that NCLB directed our consciousness to the gaps in achievement between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students, majority and minority students, native speakers of English and students for whom English is a new language, regular education students and students with exceptional needs, and in some disciplines boys and girls. Our national history in these areas is well known. The policy solutions become political when our actions are paralyzed by legitimate conflicting values. NCLB at the Crossroads explores decisions of the past fifty years to help make schools pathways to equality, and then what policies would be effective in order to attain narrowed, if not closed, gaps in student achievement. The message is that it is in the nation’s best interest in this reauthorization to write policies promoting local actions and practices that are inclusive rather than exclusive, whether they address standards, teaching, teacher education, assessment or accountability. This is a powerful challenge to our history of “command and control” when it comes to schools.

The book begins with a powerful chapter by Amy Stuart Wells who, using the concept of American exceptionalism to capture our national ambivalence toward decisive action in the cause of equity, deftly details how the dualism of self-reliance, or individualism, and egalitarianism often clash. This is the classic “bootstraps” versus “big government assistance” conflict. In the end, she contends that schools alone cannot be the agents of social and economic equity by equating educational accomplishment with economic and social accomplishment without greater coordination with other public services outside the school. If we are to achieve equity, then our systems of support should recognize and include those conditions outside schools, for example, employment and income inequalities, that too often predict student achievement.

Wells’ entry offers a useful backdrop for the next three chapters concerning three subgroups of students who tend to fall on the low side of the achievement gaps: African-American students, students for whom English is a new language, and students with exceptional needs.

In Chapter 2, Nettles, Millett, and Oh use National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data to display the achievement gaps for African-American children as well as the nature, size and trends within the gap. They leave no doubt that we have well-known data to support the assertions in the gap. However, where these authors make a significant contribution is in their recommendations: 1) strengthen schools by welcoming and embracing African-American teachers, students, and curriculum; 2) compensate for socioeconomic disadvantage at school sites; 3) enhance family support and involvement; and 4) improve measurement and communications about the gap by changing how we assess and for what purposes. These recommendations extend the theme of inclusiveness in that schools need to be linked to other social welfare programs to provide a stronger safety net for those most in need.

In the third chapter, Eugene Garcia traces the history of changes in federal policies from the first passage of ESEA and intertwines it with the scholarship on the education of English Language Learners. He argues that the policies have been inconsistent, and even contradictory, and that currently NCLB is “out of sync” with practices that could reduce the gaps. Like Nettles, et al, he calls for an inclusive approach to pedagogy that “argues for the respect and integration of the students’ values, beliefs, histories, and experiences, and recognizes the active role that students must play in the learning process” (p. 99).

In Chapter 4, McLaughlin, Miceli, and Hoffman argue that the cause of equal opportunity for students with exceptional needs has been advanced by various legislative actions over the years, including NCLB and IDEA. After reviewing the data on student achievement and finding progress, they also conclude that pedagogy needs reconsideration, especially among regular education teachers. In the end all three chapters on how student demographic features affect achievement agree that teaching practices must become more inclusive.

The next three chapters address the problems associated with assessment. Perhaps the title of Chapter 5, by former New York Times national education columnist Richard Rothstein and colleagues Rebecca Jacobsen and Tamara Wilder, says it all, “Proficiency for All – An Oxymoron.” This chapter provides an inside look at how we struggle still to identify what children should know and be able to do and at what levels, and in the end, just how subjective those “levels” are. The details of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (often termed “the nation’s report card”) and what we should take from it make one pause and wonder what precisely the education policy relationship should be between the federal government and the local communities. The authors make a convincing argument that it is a logical impossibility that all children will reach the “proficient” level by any date, let alone NCLB’s 2013-14. Their recommendations are a continuation of Rothstein’s comprehensive proposal in his earlier volume Class and Schools (2004), and are also consistent with Wells’ assertion that schools can’t do it alone.

Robert Linn, in Chapter 6, identifies and discusses five problem areas that need attention in the reauthorization: 1) setting reasonable expectations for student performance; 2) defining proficiency more clearly; 3) using score targets versus continuous improvement for judging schools; 4) measuring more than reading and math in making those judgments; 5) widening the scope of evidence to allow for some individual differences across students and student subgroups. Looking across these, he too agrees that a more diverse and inclusive assessment system is in our national best interest.  

In Chapter 7, Robert Schwartz, the former president of Achieve, Inc., stands apart from the previous authors. Where they have argued that solutions likely involve a broadened and in some instances localized systemic approach, he promotes, at least for standards-setting, a business-like and systematic approach, including: 1) a coherent and efficient plan: replace 51 sets of standards and 51 assessment programs with a set of national standards as voluntary benchmarks for the states to use; 2) measurement: suspend and revise the definition of AYP; and 3) accountability: shift the focus from the school as the unit of analysis to the state. It is worth noting that since the publication of this volume, forty-six governors have agreed to consider a set of voluntary national standards, which might free up state funds for more inclusive assessment systems.

The book returns to the theme of diversity/inclusiveness in Chapter 8 by Susanna Loeb and Luke Miller.  They argue that the quality of the entering teacher force and the underperforming schools where they work have improved by the recent widening of the pathways into teaching.  Consistent with Schwartz, another useful contribution of this chapter is the discussion of the potential power of federal policy to initiate state-level change. But perhaps most interesting is the authors’ doubt that federal legislation can reach down into teachers’ practices. It cannot standardize teaching, which suggests that the changes in teaching called for in earlier chapters are a very local issue which raises provocative questions about the locus of teacher development.

In Chapter 8, the theme of local determination to achieve externally expected results tests American exceptionalism as an approach to governing, as it concerns accountability. Richard Elmore asserts that we cannot regulate the path to success in standardized ways, and that reauthorization should revisit the relationships among the three levels of government. He demonstrates how the federal government underfunds its regulatory interests, and how it “borrows” the resources of the states and localities to accomplish its ends. Through underfunded mandates, the federal government can be the agent of state and local pain, but never carry the blame for under-performance. To correct this situation he offers the principle of reciprocity: for every unit of performance demanded, an equal unit of support should be provided, which would redesign the relationships among the jurisdictional units, which are each free to address their own needs.

The final chapter, prepared by the volume’s editors Michael Rebell and Jessica Wolff, is based on recent court decisions and revisits Wells’s opening chapter and the exceptionalism theme. Schools cannot close the gap between individualism and egalitarianism unless they are assisted by coordinated services that address the inequalities that children bring with them when they start school. The authors recommend radical changes in the reauthorization, including: 1) realistic targets for student achievement; 2) recruiting and retaining better teachers and better teaching; 3) services that mitigate the effects of poverty on learning; 4) fair funding for “essential educational resources;” and 5) building capacity in low-performing schools and districts. This too is a very inclusive agenda.

Part of the reauthorization of any legislation includes “cleaning up the mess left from the last time.” These authors seem to believe there is much to do, and they likely reflect the views of educators and the lay public. There are many reasons to read NCLB at the Crossroads, but for this reviewer, it is the view that the road to individual fulfillment starts with policies that see it as the product of our egalitarian ethic.


Rothstein, R. (2004). Class and schools. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 13, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15803, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 9:22:07 PM

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About the Author
  • Gary Galluzzo
    George Mason University
    E-mail Author
    GARY R. GALLUZZO is Professor of Education at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. His research interests include teacher education, school change, and achievement gaps. He is currently researching teachers as agents of school change.
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