No Command Left Behind

, Lindalyn Kakadelis, Leave a comment

It’s common consensus in the business world that mixing high expectations with low control is a recipe for toxic job stress. There’s no faster way to burn out employees than to judge workers by a fixed set of outcomes, giving them little flexibility to get the job done. Is the federal education law No Child Left Behind (NCLB) having the same effect on the education “industry’s” workforce? Increasingly, many policymakers seem to think so.

Concerns over high-stakes intrusion into education have been brewing for quite some time. After all, NCLB’s passage in 2002 marked the largest expansion of the federal government’s role in K-12 education since the creation of the Department of Education in 1979. Yet President George W. Bush’s signature education legislation passed Congress with great fanfare and strong bipartisan support. Still, allies on both sides of the political spectrum haven’t been able to quell growing controversy over the law’s demanding, inflexible mandates.

This year legislators are facing the mammoth task of reauthorizing NCLB. As with all things political, there’s no shortage of ideas on how to “fix” problems with the law and its implementation. Some lawmakers are advocating more federal intervention, while others support greater flexibility, urging the government to return control to local education agencies.

Either way, Education Secretary Spellings faces significant obstacles as she wades into what promises to be a sticky and contentious reauthorization battle. Education writer Michelle Davis refers to Spellings as the “ace” in Bush’s hand during the reauthorization game, but says she’ll have her work cut out for her since “Democrats and Republicans alike are getting heat from constituents frustrated with the law’s demands and penalties for schools.” Add to that the fact that President Bush’s reauthorization plans include controversial initiatives such as school vouchers for students in failing public schools – a sure bet to get political pulses
racing. In fact, the voucher initiative may be first on the chopping block.

Fortunately, a recent article by Dan Lips, education analyst with the Heritage Foundation, proposes a promising alternative to NCLB’s high-stress, high-stakes world. In “Saving ‘No Child Left Behind’ From Itself,” Lips highlights a conservative-backed bill in Congress that would allow states to opt out of many of the law’s mandates, if they continue to track progress with student testing and publicize results; states would then be free to make their own determinations about how to use federal funds. This proposal would have the added benefit of cutting any incentive states now have to “game the system” and dumb down testing standards to meet
NCLB’s guidelines. Lips suggests such a plan may be the best way to achieve true accountability – ironically, the very thing NCLB set out to do.

However federal law changes, though, one thing remains clear: trying to enforce government mandates without giving states and schools flexibility is a losing proposition. It’s also a sure way to demoralize teachers, superintendents, and principals. But they’re not even the ones who lose the most. Those who truly come up short are American families – even after years of legislative wrangling and federal attempts at accountability, they still don’t really know how their kids are doing.

Lindalyn Kakadelis heads the North Carolina Education Alliance. This article originally appeared as an entry in Lindalyn’s Journal, which she compiles for the NCEA.