'Framing' the Debate over NCLB
The No Child Left Behind Act – though a policy failure in many ways – has nevertheless been a rhetorical triumph. For NCLB proponents, the emphasis on overcoming racial "achievement gaps" has served as a moral high horse, enabling them to gallop roughshod over critics while decrying "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Accusations of "making excuses for failing schools" and "believing that minority children can't learn" have proved to be effective weapons in the debate.
As a result, most organizations representing educators find themselves on the defensive whenever they raise concerns about NCLB's impact. Who wants to be labeled as "against accountability," much less "bigoted" against minority children? So those favoring fundamental changes in NCLB often find themselves at a tactical disadvantage in enounters with Stay the Course forces.
Credit for all this belongs largely to Karl Rove, White House adviser and Republican apparatchik extraordinaire, who has been deservedly dubbed "Bush's Brain." It was Rove who made NCLB, both the slogan and the concept, a centerpiece of the 2000 presidential campaign. He saw it as a way to position George W. Bush as a "compassionate conservative," to soften his party's hard-hearted image, and to outflank Democrats on a key domestic issue.
In effect, Rove "reframed" the issue of school reform to gain a political advantage for Republicans. Whereas conservatives had traditionally opposed a strong federal role in education and had tended to stress academic excellence over equity, the Bush Administration took up the cause of "disadvantaged" students in order to advance other Republican objectives, such as the privatization of public schools. Using the rhetoric of civil rights and anti-poverty, it enlisted many Democratic followers as well. Hence the overwhelming bipartisan support for NCLB in 2001.
New Terms, New Politics
Terminology is central to framing, as the linguist George Lakoff explains:
"Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. When you hear a word, its frame is activated in your brain. Reframing is changing the way the public sees the world… New language is required for new frames. Thinking differently requires speaking differently."
NCLB has relied on several terms to reframe the debate over school reform, including accountability, adequate yearly progress, scientifically based research, and perhaps most important, achievement gap.
Disparities in test scores between socioeconomic groups are nothing new, of course. (Nor are they restricted to American schools.) But when did "the achievement gap" become a focus of public discourse? Quite recently, it turns out. An archive search of the New York TImes found that the term appeared rarely in the 1980s, sporadically through most of the 1990s, and then frequently beginning in 1998 – often in reference to the Bush presidential campaign and later, of course, in connection with NCLB.
Meanwhile, a long-established term – equal educational opportunity – was going out of common usage. From 2001 to 2005, it appeared in just 10 articles, as compared with 173 articles mentioning achievement gaps. The shift in terminology, albeit subtle, signaled a reframing of how the American public thinks about school reform.
Whereas "equal educational opportunity" had framed the issue in terms of educational inputs – resources, curriculum, facilities, materials, teacher training, best practices – "achievement gap" now highlights only educational outputs, as measured by standardized tests.
Responsibility for inputs is broadly shared among policymakers at all levels. Outputs are seen as the job of schools, which will be "held accountable" for achievement gaps. Hence NCLB's constricted version of accountability. The law essentially removes political leaders from the picture, ignoring their responsibility to provide adequate and equitable resources, and shining the spotlight on educators alone.
Another sign of reframing: The phrase “failing schools” appeared in 306 New York Times articles between 2001 and 2005, as compared to just 69 between 1991 and 1995.
Unstated Assumptions about NCLB-Style Accountability
'Accountability' at What Price?
What Kind of Accountability?
A Better Way To Hold Schools Accountable for ELLs
Copyright © 2007 by the Institute for Language and Education Policy. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to reprint or repost material from this site unless copyrighted by third parties, for educational, advocacy, and other noncommercial purposes. All other permission requests should be directed to the Institute at firstname.lastname@example.org.