In a room with five educational experts discussing the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), opinions fly. But with a particular group of five experts at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI), one thought rang loudest—NCLB can work, but it will take some work.
These experts were Michael J. Petrilli, vice president of national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute; Dianne M. Piché, the executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights; Williamson M. Evers of the Hoover Institution; Andrew J. Rothersham, cofounder and codirector of Education Sector. Their point at AEI was to discuss an article written by Richard M. Hess, AEI, and Petrilli.
Michael Petrilli presented the arguments in the article to the panel. He argues that problems with the current NCLB were not in the original bill: “Many of the most controversial parts of that law—[most]…of the heat is taken away when you take those provisions away…. If you go back and you read the original No Child Left Behind document…you will find that it does not mention 100% proficiency, it does not mention [proficiency by] 2014, it does not mention ELL [English Language Learners] or special ed kids being included as separate subgroups, and it does not use the words ‘highly qualified teacher.’ And yet, by the end of the Congressional process, we had a law that included all of those provisions, and more.”
He argues that these provisions make it impossible to implement: “[W]hat we had was something that was much more like a great society program, utopian in its aspirations—sure it still had accountability—but it was accountability wedded to these utopian notions of 100% proficiency, and that all kids, even kids with cognitive disabilities were going to be able to achieve these standards, and other things that have later come under a great amount of scrutiny.” One good thing that he attributes to NCLB is the education reform that has taken place since NCLB was passed. He argues that in order to make NCLB work, the “utopian notions” need to be removed.
Dianne Piché disagrees. She says the world is too complex for simple answers. “I believe that a simplistic categorization of organizations, individuals, and policies as…left or right, liberal or conservative—is wrong…. What I really want to emphasize today is that, particularly on education, particularly on solving the…tremendous problems we have in this country of both our need to be competitive internationally, and our need to pay attention to the unacceptable and shameful achievement gaps between rich and poor, white, Asian, and minorities. That it doesn’t make any sense anymore to be categorizing ourselves as left, right, or moderate.” She “think[s] it’s important to have a much more pragmatic and less ideological approach…legislation is complicated, and it’s messy.” She argues that this plan would have worked, but there was no movement behind the idea. So instead it sat still. She holds that there must be much more demand before there can be a “better product.”
Williamson Evers says NCLB is actually working and doing what it is supposed to: “I think if we look at the test results in reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), we can see that this is not true what this individual wrote. [That it is not working.]” He points out that both grades and proficiency are growing, and there is dramatic improvement. He also argues that it is possible to tell where the schools need help: “If you have a thermometer that measures from below freezing up to seventy-five, you can figure out what kids are freezing, what schools are failing… we can tell where we need to turn around failing schools, where we need to fire ineffective teachers and administrators…[and] get a product out of these schools.” He holds that there is racism in the public school system as a whole. He holds that the goals laid out in NCLB are attainable, and he says that they are necessary.
Andrew Rotherham argues that the authors are correct in the three problems they identified. He asks, “Across the board, when have…[states] really bitten the bullet, made hard decisions, taken on established interest on behalf of kids of color, behalf of low income kids, and on behalf of kids with special needs?” He argues that they have not for many years, and they need to do so. He argues that states are not going to solve the problem voluntarily. He agrees with Evers that there is “institutional racism.” He claims that “federal intervention [has] never really been tried.” He says, “Progress is great, but you have to ask, ‘Progress to where?’…We also have to have a date certain.”