Going from B to A

How to fix the No Child Left Behind Act.

House education and labor committee Chairman George Miller

Martial metaphors are oddly popular in education, and critics of the No Child Left Behind Act often compare the law to Iraq. The California Teachers Association is so angry about the proposed renewal of the law that union leaders say they are ready “to go to war“—not with the union’s usual enemy, President George Bush, but with California Democrat George Miller, a lifelong labor ally who wants to extend the bill this year. But while the law has generated uncommon enmity, average voters support (PDF) it once they learn what it does. And that common sense should prevail: NCLB should keep its heart, and its bite, even though doing that right will require a somewhat new approach.

Remember why Congress passed NCLB in the first place. Poor and African-American children read four grade levels behind their middle-class and white peers. During the 1990s, some states, such as North Carolina and Texas (yes, Texas), lifted achievement (PDF) with a shared approach: creating high academic standards, testing students’ success in meeting those standards, and getting out the data on achievement so parents could complain and schools could improve. Because high expectations matter so much for both teachers and students, slogans like “No Child Left Behind” were both good politics and good pedagogy. The federal law took these approaches national: requiring testing in grades three to eight, giving the test results to schools and parents, and mandating corrective steps for schools that don’t measure up.

Five years later, some studies suggest that test scores have risen since NCLB, but even the law’s advocates don’t see the improvements they had hoped for. Yet they do see that the law has finally focused schools’ attention on the yawning achievement gap. This in turn has encouraged new approaches to teaching poor children. More systems are extending the school day, supporting effective charter schools, and rewarding teachers for classroom success. When school hours still reflect old rhythms and lockstep pay practices treat teachers like interchangeable factory workers, these changes are all to the good. This is why my former boss Joel Klein, the New York City schools chancellor whose district won a major award this week, insists, “[W]e should not consider diluting or destroying a law [NCLB] that forces us to confront our problems head on.”

On the other side, the most familiar complaint about NCLB is that it drives “teaching to the test,” or endless “drill and kill” prep for multiple-choice exams, crowding out science and history and creativity. That charge has gained real traction among middle-class and suburban parents who worry about getting their kids into good colleges. It resonates less in the poor communities where students aren’t graduating high school and aren’t learning to fill out job applications or pay the bills. For these kids, the basics aren’t so bad, which may be why Hispanics and African-Americans support NCLB more strongly than whites.

Although many complaints about the law are legitimate, the biggest problems come not from testing itself, but from the unstable compromise at the heart of NCLB. The law instructs states to get all students to 100 percent “proficiency” in reading and math by 2014, without imposing any common definitions of what students need to know. Each state has created whatever standards and tests it sees fit. This has set in motion two harmful trends. First, some states have lowered their standards to raise their pass rates. (In 2014, if students can use their handprints to sign their names, everyone will be proficient.) And second, 50 states have struggled to develop 50 sets of standards and 50 sets of tests to match. Both state budgets and the testing industry are stretched too thin, and low-level multiple-choice tests are too often the result.

But this is a problem with a solution. As anybody who has reviewed an Advanced Placement exam or visited an International Baccalaureate school knows, serious testing and complex thinking are perfectly compatible. If the United States, like most of our top global competitors, committed to developing national standards and assessments, we could take the money that’s now spread over 50 states to make outstanding tests across the curriculum. And if the federal government then established incentives for states to adopt those standards, or others equally rigorous, the race to the lowest standards would stop. As part of the deal, states adopting these standards could be released from some of NCLB’s most onerous (and least justified) provisions requiring specific approaches (such as private tutoring) for students in low-performing schools. A recent poll (PDF) found that more than seven in 10 Americans support national standards and tests.

Yet the same odd alliance that blocked this approach before is opposing it again. Small-government conservatives (the four of them left) view national standards as an incursion on states’ rights—even though ultimate authority for choosing standards could remain at the local level. And the teachers’ unions want to make sure that tests, however improved, are not the central measure of schools’ success.

Although rarely spoken about, what unites many critics is the sense that it just isn’t fair to ask so much of schools. You see this view on the right, in the Weekly Standard’s new cover article trashing NCLB. Andrew Ferguson concludes that achievement gaps are grounded in the neighborhood and the home, in “facts, every one of them, beyond the reach of any education reformer.” And you see it on the left, in the work of  the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein, who argues that social class causes inequities that schools cannot overcome.

In the seminar room, you can argue for months about whether poverty creates an obstacle or an absolute barrier to student achievement. But in the real classrooms, some schools teach poor kids far more effectively than others—and those schools are exactly the ones that set clear and high expectations for themselves and their students. Yet such expectations are precisely what these critics resist.

In one of politics’ wonderful ironies, the best hope to rescue George Bush’s proudest domestic accomplishment now rests with two of his fiercest critics, Miller and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. Bush hasn’t helped himself any: His failure to fund NCLB has undermined the law’s support; his scandal- ridden education department has lent credence to the silly idea that the law is a plot to destroy public education; and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’ comparison of the law to Ivory soap (“99.9 percent pure”) has made the whole operation look unserious.

Miller recently put out a draft bill that takes a strong stand on some issues, like encouraging pay reforms. But on the key issue of standards, the bill offers only a modest financial incentive for states to move to high ones. That funding will be overwhelmed by the bill’s central demand for 100 percent proficiency by 2014. The best approach would be national standards set high. Short of that, a better one, as reform hawks at the Education Trust urge, is to offer states an out from the 2014 deadline if they adopt higher standards themselves. We don’t need speedy fake accomplishment; we need substance. Watch what the committee bills, expected as early as this week, have to say on this.

By all means, Congress should fix the unintended consequences of NCLB. But lawmakers should not undo the central consequence the law intended and the critics dislike: the demand that schools do better by the kids they fail.