Leaving NCLB Behind
SCHOOLS AND SOCIAL POLICY
In one respect, NCLB betrays core Democratic principles, denying the importance of all social policy but school reform. Inadequate schools are only one reason disadvantaged children perform poorly. They come to school under stress from high-crime neighborhoods and economically insecure households. Their low-cost day-care tends to park them before televisions, rather than provide opportunities for developmentally appropriate play. They switch schools more often because of inadequate housing and rents rising faster than parents' wages. They have greater health problems, some (like lead poisoning or iron-deficiency anemia) directly depressing cognitive ability, and some causing more absenteeism or inattentiveness. Their households include fewer college-educated adults to provide rich intellectual environments, and their parents are less likely to expect academic success. Nearly 15 percent of the black-white test-score gap can be traced to differences in housing mobility, and 25 percent to differences in child- and maternal-health.
Yet NCLB insists that school improvement alone can raise all children to high proficiency. The law anticipates that with higher expectations, better teachers, improved curriculum, and more testing, all youths will attain full academic competence, poised for college and professional success. Natural human variability would still distinguish children, but these distinctions would have nothing to do with family disadvantage. Then there really would be no reason for progressive housing or health and economic policies. The nation's social and economic problems would take care of themselves, by the next generation.
Teachers of children who come to school hungry, scared, abused, or ill, consider this absurd. But NCLB's aura intimidates educators from acknowledging the obvious. Teachers are expected to repeat the mantra "all children can learn," a truth carrying the mendacious implication that the level to which children learn has nothing to do with their starting points. Teachers are warned that any mention of children's socioeconomic disadvantages only "makes excuses" for teachers' own poor performance.
Of course, there are better and worse schools and better and worse teachers. Of course, some disadvantaged children excel more than others. But NCLB has turned these obvious truths into the fantasy that teachers can wipe out socioeconomic differences among children simply by trying harder.
Denouncing schools as the chief cause of American inequality -- in academic achievement, thus in the labor market, and thus in life generally -- stimulates cynicism among teachers who are expected to act on a theory they know to be false. Many dedicated and talented teachers are abandoning education; they may have achieved exceptional results with disadvantaged children, but with NCLB's bar set so impossibly high, even these are labeled failures.
The continuation of NCLB's rhetoric will also erode support for public education. Educators publicly vow they can eliminate achievement gaps, but they will inevitably fall short. The reasonable conclusion can only be that public education is hopelessly incompetent.
Few policy-makers have publicly acknowledged NCLB's demise. Instead, they talk of fixing it. Some want to credit schools for student growth from year to year, rather than for reaching arbitrary proficiency levels. Clearly, adequate progress from different starting points leads to different ending points, but growth-model advocates can't bring themselves to drop the universal-proficiency goal. Doing so would imply lower expectations, on average, for disadvantaged children -- too much for unsophisticated policy discussion to swallow. Consequently, the "fix" is incoherent.
Growth models have even larger error margins than single-year test results because they rely on two unreliable scores (last year's and this year's), not one. And accountability for math and reading growth retains the incentives to abandon non-tested subjects and skills. So some NCLB loyalists now propose accountability for "multiple measures," such as graduation rates. But presently quantifiable skills are too few to minimize goal distortion -- the federal government is unprepared to monitor, for instance, whether students express good citizenship. Further, any mention of diluting a math and reading focus elicits the wrath of "basics" fundamentalists, such as the president and his secretary of education.
Although NCLB will not be reauthorized, the underlying Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), with funding for schools serving low-income children, will continue. NCLB will remain on the books, increasingly ignored. Virtually every school with minority, low-income, or immigrant children will be labeled a failure; the federal government will be hard-pressed to punish all. Eventually, under a new administration, ESEA will be renewed, perhaps including vague incantations that states establish their own accountability policies, once Washington abandons the field.
States will do so. Some, not having learned NCLB's lessons, will retain the distortions and corruption that NCLB established. Others, more creative, will use qualitative as well as quantitative standards, relying on school inspections as well as test scores.
Renouncing federal micromanagement will require liberals to abandon a cherished myth: that only the federal government can protect disadvantaged minorities from Southern states' indifference. The myth is rooted in an isolated fact: In the two decades following Brown v. Board of Education, the federal government forced states to respect rights not only of African Americans but of disabled and immigrant children.
But at other times, the federal government has been no defender of the oppressed. In the early 20th century, state governments enacted minimum-wage, health, and safety laws, only to see them struck down by the Supreme Court. Today, Southern states' attempts to improve education are often impeded by federal policy. Only last year, school integration efforts of Louisville, Kentucky, were prohibited by federal courts, while federal administrative agencies block efforts at integration and affirmative action. In recent decades, states like North Carolina and Texas have been innovators in school improvement. North and South Carolina and Arkansas have had nationally known "education governors" (Jim Hunt, Richard Riley, and Bill Clinton). The greatest potential for greater education improvement in the South lies in boosting African American voting participation, not more federal mandates.
Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute. From 1999 to 2002 he was the national education columnist of the New York Times. He is the author of Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap (Teachers College Press 2004). He is also the author of The Way We Were? Myths and Realities of America’s Student Achievement (1998).
Richard Rothstein, Dec. 17,2007.