Five can be a difficult birthday. Just ask the architects of President Bush’s landmark federal law, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which turned five this past Monday, January 8th. Gone forever are those early, indulgent days of NCLB’s infancy, when supporters praised the law and voiced high hopes for its future. Surely NCLB would eradicate achievement gaps, enhance accountability, and raise performance, or so the thinking went.
My, how things have changed in the intervening years. This past week, NCLB was front and center in the minds of education pundits, who grudgingly acknowledged the good, but spent far more time on the bad and the ugly. Education blog, EduWonk.com was one of the first to weigh in with a NCLB update on January 5th, revealing the law’s new logo and hinting at possible changes to come.
On January 8th, USA Today devoted a cover story to the law’s impact on every classroom in America. According to the article, NCLB did create a sense of educational urgency, especially for struggling students. Yet NCLB has had the unfortunate and unintended consequence of narrowing curriculum, as instructors must increasingly “teach to the test.” Teacher organizations also complain bitterly about the law’s unrealistic expectations. Clearly, accountability is in the eyes of the beholder, since each state is permitted to determine its own standards and grade-level proficiency. Unfortunately, most state departments of education have quickly
learned how to “game” the system to make themselves look good, fulfilling the letter of the law if not its spirit.
Even some of the law’s staunchest supporters have grown disenchanted. Michael Petrilli, a former Department of Education employee tasked with implementing the more than 1,000-page law (and by his own admission, a “True Believer”) is qualifying his support, saying he “can’t pretend any longer that the law is ‘working,’ or that a tweak and a tuck would make it ‘work.'” While Petrilli says NCLB has encouraged educators to focus on results and on closing the achievement gap, it has also proven to be an exercise in frustration and futility because of its “nonsensical provisions – the specifics that keep NCLB from achieving its own aims.”
An article in the Christian Science Monitor sounds a similar theme: “Supporters say they’re happier with the conversation the law has jumpstarted than with the results.” Clearly, NCLB has put education on everyone’s minds these days. At the African American Agenda conference in Charlotte last week focusing on problems within the local black community, education emerged as the number one priority.
But while education is a hot topic, support for the law as it now stands is growing colder by the hour: the “hate NCLB” coalition is expanding rapidly, with more than 23,000 signatures already on an online petition calling for the law’s repeal. All of this antagonism, combined with a lack of consensus on key modifications, may mean fewer changes to the law and more delays. In fact, a recent report by the Fordham Foundation, relaying the views of 12 Washington education insiders, predicts NCLB
reauthorization will likely be delayed until after the 2008 presidential elections.
If we have learned anything from the NCLB imbroglio, it’s this: there are serious constraints and limitations on the federal government (and its laws) when it comes to forcing classroom reform. Law-based, top-down reform rarely works, and often creates more problems than it fixes. New or improved laws won’t do us any good until we shift our education paradigm, embracing concepts like school choice that shift the balance of power back to parents and families and away from government. After all, when it comes to protecting the interests and futures of children, no law can compete with a loving, invested parent.