by Pedro Noguera - January 11, 2010
The re-authorization of ESEA presents the Obama administration with the opportunity to address the flaws in the No Child Behind law and chart a new direction in federal policy. This is an opportunity that should not be wasted. NCLB needs more than minor tinkering or adjustments. A major overhaul is needed if greater improvements in our nation's schools are to be realized in the next few years.
Before the current administration moves forward to re-authorize ESEA, more commonly referred to as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), it would be wise if it took time to reflect upon why the law is now so widely scorned. Opposition to NCLB is widespread among large numbers of liberals and conservatives, as well many educators throughout the country. Without the benefit of a careful assessment, the administration runs the risk of turning education into an issue that generates opposition and disaffection, not just from its conservative critics, but also from important members of its base.
When NCLB was adopted by congress eight years ago, few would have guessed that it would eventually generate such broad-based opposition and contempt. Championed by respected legislative leaders George Miller and Ted Kennedy, and promoted enthusiastically by President George W. Bush, the law was adopted with bi-partisan support. This was a remarkable achievement, not only because very few policy issues have been embraced by politicians from both parties in recent years, but also because the law significantly expanded the role of the federal government in public education. Prior to NCLB, the federal role had been largely limited to enforcement of the civil rights provisions of ESEA. While the protections it contained for the educational rights of students with special needs, language minorities, and poor children generally were important, lack of funding for these mandates had relegated the federal government to the sidelines in education, and most policies were controlled by the states. NCLB ushered in a new era of federal intervention, and the once marginal US Department of Education was empowered with the task of monitoring academic standards and systems of accountability adopted by the states.
With its increased authority, the Department of Education used its mandate to compel states to adopt standards and comply with NCLBs testing requirements. As might have been expected, opposition to the intrusion of these largely unfunded federal mandates gradually grew, both in red states like Utah and Virginia, and in blue states like Connecticut. Opposition to NCLB was even more strenuous in middle class suburban districts that resented having their schools labeled as failing if they did not achieve average yearly progress (AYP) for each designated sub group. Many educators also resented the fact that teaching to the test became the natural outcome of a policy that judged the performance of schools largely by test scores.
With this very brief, albeit biased, summary of NCLBs history, we return to the question of what the administration will do now as it seeks to adopt a new set of guidelines for federal education policy. The choice, in its simplest terms, seems to boil down to two basic options: 1) tinker with the law by removing some of the more objectionable features in the hopes that bi-partisan support might once again emerge, or 2) undertake a more radical and comprehensive revision. For obvious reasons, the first option will likely be more appealing to the administration, which may well conclude that it would be easier to build consensus around a law with which legislators are familiar than to venture into uncharted territory.
However, while this approach may seem practical, my reading of the current political climate related to public education leads me to believe that this course of action is likely to produce more opposition and rancor than the administration has bargained for. Particularly, given the deep divisions over controversies like the state of the economy, our militarys involvement in two wars, and reforms in energy policy, it would be unwise to allow education to degenerate into a bitterly partisan issue. More importantly, the administration must realize that staying the course in public education is unlikely to produce the change we need.
To be fair, NCLB has done two important things: it has drawn attention to wide disparities in student achievement that correspond to the racial and socio-economic backgrounds of children (the so-called achievement gap), and it has held districts responsible for raising achievement for all children. These are important accomplishments; however, drawing attention to a problem is not the same as solving it. The clearest indication that something still is very wrong is that we continue to have dropout rates of close to 50% in most major urban districts across the country. Moreover, though it may have been an unintended consequence, NCLB has distorted the relationship between teaching and assessment in many schools. Schools need greater guidance on how to adopt teaching strategies that have proven effective in meeting the learning needs of academically and socially disadvantaged students. They also need help in figuring out how to develop and sustain Opportunity to Learn Standards (OTL) that are essential for creating environments in which quality teaching and higher levels of learning may flourish.
Given the high stakes involved in the education debates, it would be wise for the administration to pull back a bit. Instead of moving forward with more mandates (i.e., requiring states to adopt some form of performance pay and lift the cap on charter schools) and offering a slightly modified version of NCLB, it would be wise for the administration to take the lead by clarifying what high standards should consist of. There are a small but significant number of high performing, high poverty schools. Some, but not all of these are charter schools. Rather than setting up a competition among schools, the administration should adopt policies that encourage schools to collaborate with and learn from each other. There are also a number of districts that have made tremendous progress in closing the achievement gap. The accomplishments of these schools and districts should be used to encourage states to adopt policies and educational strategies that have proven effective elsewhere.
Instead of positioning itself as the issuer of mandates and the judge of who is winning the race to the top, the federal government should assume the role of cheerleader and promoter of higher standards and genuine innovation in education. It can specify that federal funds must be used to support the adoption of strategies that have proven effective elsewhere. It can also encourage states and school systems to adopt educational strategies that have contributed to success in other nations like Norway and Singapore, such as increased access to high quality early childhood education, site-based professional development for teachers in pedagogy and content, and school-business partnerships that promote the acquisition of technical skills in sectors where employment opportunities are most likely to grow.
Education is both a source of and a potential solution to many of the problems confronting our nation. It also continues to be the most viable resource at our disposal for protecting our democracy, re-building our economy, and securing a better future for our citizens. Most Americans understand the importance of education, and that is why even during troubling times like these, it continues to be recognized as an important policy issue.
The administration would be wise to seize this opportunity to promote change, to address the failures of chronically under-performing schools, and to foster innovative practices in public education. Instead of scolding teachers and deriding failing schools, the administration must provide clear guidance regarding the types of reforms that are most likely to lead to improved academic outcomes. The re-authorization of ESEA provides an opportunity for this type of leadership. Lets hope the administration can rise to the challenge.