The body is cold, the obituary written. All that’s left for the federal No Child Left Behind Law is to pull the plug — and, crucially, for the U.S. Congress to agree on what comes next.
That was the consensus among four experts who spoke on a panel, “RIP NCLB?: A New Role for Uncle Sam,” at the Education Writers Association’s annual conference in Chicago on April 21.
The four panelist agreed that NCLB was effectively dead, but disagreed on the best path forward. The discussion centered on the merits of the bipartisan update to the No Child Left Behind law that passed a U.S. Senate committee on April 16. A full Senate vote is expected later this spring.
Congress was due to reauthorize the No Child Law in 2007 but has failed repeatedly. Faced with stalemate in Congress, most states have received waivers from the U.S. Department of Education from key provisions of the federal law.
The current effort to replace No Child and update the main federal education law, known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, appears more promising than any previous attempt, the panelists said. The agreement was reached by U.S. Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn).
They “have created bipartisan momentum in a way that’s hugely important, signaling that education isn’t the providence of Democrats or Republicans but of local communities,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said of the 22-0 vote in favor of the bipartisan senate rewrite. “This is the best shot of changing what was really a toxic law.”
On that point, and only on that point, said Weingarten and I agree, joked Sandy Kress of the George W. Bush Institute. Kress helped write the No Child law as senior adviser to President George W. Bush.
The proposed No Child update significantly reduces the federal role in education and lets states decide how best to measure success. This scaling back is meant to appease critics of the No Child law who complained bitterly about the sanctions the law imposed on schools and districts that failed to meet annual testing targets. Kress fears this change will undermine the strength of test-based accountability embedded in the 2002 law.
“I’m worried about losing our commitment to consequences,” Kress said. “By poorly implementing NCLB, by not making it work, we’ve gotten to the point where consequences are RIP.”
But Weingarten says the focus on stakes and accountability have fed a testing mania that has done more damage than good.
“There is a big difference between having annual data to use to inform, diagnose, be transparent and having this kind of hammering, high stakes consequences for schools, teachers, children,” Weingarten said. “And that’s what this bills does, it basically de-stakes it.
Kress denied that the No Child law was to blame for excessive testing and the shaming of teachers and schools that followed. He insisted that those are not the inevitable consequence of requiring annual testing and attaching stakes to the outcomes of those exams.
“None of this was called for or required in No Child Left Behind,” Kress said before defending the central idea behind the No Child law: “What was the dramatic, horrible thing that people were under pressure to do? To get better, to improve, to correct things, to make your teaching better. That the horrible, punitive thing behind the big bad nasty NCLB.”
U.S. Rep Todd Rokita [R-Indiana] told the audience that he supports testing and consequences but thinks it’s best for states to decide.
“We say accountability is a good thing,” Rokita said. “You have to test, but you should determine how that test should go, how long that test should go, what exactly you should ask about on math and reading. You should devolve it back to the states.”
The last voice on the panel pushed for another way altogether, saying that decades of test-based accountability have not produced results. Jack Jennings, founder of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington D.C.-based education policy group, urged an end to the hunt for the “the perfect accountability system.”
“We’re in this box where we’re looking for the perfect test,” said Jennings, author of the recently released Presidents, Congress and the Public Schools: The Politics of Education Reform. “We should spend our time on improving the quality of teaching, improving rigor of instruction, improving funding, improving preparation for school … Instead we’re spending endless hours looking for the perfect type of accountability and the evidence is very weak that that’s going to result in much.”