Dropouts Left Behind

, Larry Scholer, Leave a comment

Although conservatives are dismayed by the multibillion-dollar price tag attached to President Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education reforms, many argue that the information and data the law requires schools to gather outweigh any negative effects.

“[NCLB] requires school districts to gather more information than ever,” said Nina Rees [pictured], Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement at the Department of Education.

Lawrence Uzzell, a researcher and former staff member of Congressional committees on education, dismisses the data-collecting aspects of the law and believes that states manipulate data. “NCLB is about…the carefully manufactured illusion of rigorous standards,” he said.

“States can simply invent fictional reports,” he added, noting that federal officials have made little effort to challenge suspicious data.

As evidence of states willfully manipulating data, Uzzell, in a paper for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, DC, points out inconsistencies in graduation rate reporting among states. Schools often dishonestly report or manipulate data in order to mask serious shortcomings.

“In late 2003 California’s state department of education formally announced a graduation rate of 86.9 percent—even while the state’s own specialists were admitting unofficially that the true figure was about 70 percent,” he writes.

Schools also often report dropout rates instead of graduation rates. Reporting dropout rates often leads to a false assumption of a high graduation rate, Uzzell said. Dropout rates are difficult to determine—especially if students move from school to school—and it cannot be assumed that students who do not dropout graduate.

Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and Hoover Institution fellow, said that the “sunshine” elements of NCLB would prevent the abuses that Uzzell described and that NCLB, while hardly perfect, is necessary. “Something like this law was needed and is needed,” he said. “Our states and our communities were not making progress.”

“A decade from now historians are going to be comparing the No Child Left Behind Act with Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, said Uzzell on May 31 at the Cato Institute.

Uzzell has written “No Child Left Behind: The Dangers of Centralized Education Policy.” The paper attacks the centralization of education policies under the act and argues for the federal government to leave education to the states.

“The best educational improvement is to avoid educational policymaking and allow states to experiment with school choice programs,” he writes. Uzzell, who once worked for the Department of Education, argues that “[the department] is inherently incapable of helping schools.”

“If you want real reform, centralization is not the answer—it’s the problem,” he said. While the act does make demands on states, the law does not take away their authority, supporters say.

“[NCLB] recognizes that states all have their own standards,” Rees said.

“We see this law as a partnership with states,” she said.

Larry Scholer is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.