We are now in year five of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Once hailed as a historic new federal commitment to leave no child behind, today NCLB inspires fear and loathing from coast to coast — and beyond. Puerto Rico and Hawaii hate it too.
Every one of the 50 states has introduced legislation rejecting all or part of NCLB. Several have filed lawsuits against it. More than 10,000 schools have been put on NCLB's infamous list of "schools in need of improvement" and face an escalating series of sanctions that address neither their needs nor their challenges. Thousands more will be added to the list in the next few years as increasing numbers of schools are squeezed in the tightening vise of unreachable "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) test targets and inadequate resources. This year more than a quarter of all public schools (nearly 23,000) failed to reach AYP. Missing AYP two years in a row earns a spot on the list.
Today, NCLB is almost as unpopular as the administration and Congress that created it. With the law coming up for reauthorization in 2007, debate is heating up about whether we need Band-Aids to "fix" NLCB or a bulldozer to bury it.
Less well known, but soon to become much more familiar, are the law's more drastic measures for schools that miss AYP for four or five years. After four years, schools are required to choose one of the following:
- Replace school staff relevant to the failure.
- Put in place a new curriculum.
- Decrease management authority at the school.
- Appoint outside experts to advise the school.
- Extend the school year or the school day.
- Restructure the internal organization of the school.
After five years, the choices are:
- Reopen as a charter school.
- Replace all or most of the staff.
- Contract with an outside entity to operate the school.
- Institute other significant governance and staffing changes likely to improve the school.
- Turn over operation of the school to the state.
Since NCLB sanctions are cumulative, schools also must presumably continue to offer transfer and tutoring while instituting these measures.
But beneath the rhetoric, NCLB's policy framework is toxic, bad for the health of schools and children and driven by ideological political objectives that are arrogantly indifferent to the realities of school life. It makes no commitment to bridging the deep social inequalities reflected in academic achievement gaps, but demands that schools make them disappear (and it demands more of poorer, diverse schools than richer, homogeneous ones). When schools fall short of the impossible, they face punitive sanctions that weaken their ability to serve all students and ultimately increase educational inequality instead of reduce it.
Some advocates for children and schools, desperate for signs of hope amidst the wasteland of social and economic policies emanating from Washington, have struggled mightily to find positives in NCLB. They point to the pressure on schools to account for all students, the promise of better choices for parents in the poorest communities, the emphasis on improving teacher qualifications. But five years of inconsistent and underfinanced implementation has made good on none of these promises. Reasonable people may continue to differ on various aspects of NCLB, but the core of the law has been laid inescapably bare: tests, more tests, and punitive sanctions that create a systematic and misleading impression of failure and that hurt public education far more than they help those who have been poorly served by it.
The debate over reauthorizing NCLB is likely to show how much the bipartisan coalition that originally passed it has fragmented. Hopefully, it will also provide opportunities to limit the damage. But the Congressional debate, unfortunately, is much less likely to define lasting alternatives to the top-down, test-driven, underfunded policies that are crushing the life and the hope out of too many schools.
For that we'll need the voices of educators, students, and communities. One place those voices could make a difference will be the 2006 elections when the next Congress will be chosen. Many in the antiwar movement, frustrated by the failure of Congress to reflect the broad popular opposition to the war in Iraq, have pledged not to support any candidates who continue to support current U.S. policy. Similarly, opponents of NCLB might insist, at a minimum, on a pledge to end federally mandated testing, eliminate the direct ties between test scores and sanctions, and replace NCLB's privatization agenda with more funding and stronger support for improving the public system.
Sending people to Congress who are committed to ending both the war in Iraq and the war on our public schools would be a big step toward making good on the promises — empty so far — of No Child Left Behind.