NCLB: Get Congress Out of the Classroom

October 3, 2007
NY Times Op-Ed Contributor
Get Congress Out of the Classroom
DESPITE the rosy claims of the Bush administration, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 is fundamentally flawed. The latest national tests, released last week, show that academic gains since 2003 have been modest, less even than those posted in the years before the law was put in place. In eighth-grade reading, there have been no gains at all since 1998.

The main goal of the law — that all children in the United States will be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014 — is simply unattainable. The primary strategy — to test all children in those subjects in grades three through eight every year — has unleashed an unhealthy obsession with standardized testing that has reduced the time available for teaching other important subjects. Furthermore, the law completely fractures the traditional limits on federal interference in the operation of local schools.

Unfortunately, the Congressional leaders in both parties seem determined to renew the law, probably after next year’s presidential election, with only minor changes. But No Child Left Behind should be radically overhauled, not just tweaked.

Under the law, the states devise their own standards and their own tests. Based on the test results, every school is expected to make “adequate yearly progress” in grades three to eight so as to be on track to meet that goal of universal proficiency by 2014. Schools that do not meet their annual target for every group of students — as defined by race, poverty, language and disability status — are subject to increasingly onerous sanctions written into the federal law.

Schools that fail to meet their target for two consecutive years must offer their students the choice to go to a more successful public school; if they fail the following year, they must provide tutoring to their students. If the students continue to miss their target, the entire teaching and administration staff may be replaced, or the school may be turned over to state control, or it may be converted into a charter school.

Yet these tough sanctions thus far have been ineffective. Federal agencies report that only about 1 percent of eligible students take advantage of switching schools and fewer than 20 percent of eligibles receive extra tutoring.

In inner cities, where academic performance is weakest, only a handful of students move to successful schools because there are very few seats available to them. In rural America, choice is limited by the small number of other schools in the geographic area. Furthermore, neither research nor experience validates any of the “remedies” written into law. There is little evidence that failing schools improve if they are turned over to state control or converted to charter status.

No Child Left Behind can, however, be salvaged if policymakers recognize that they need to reverse the roles of the federal government and the states. In our federal system, each level of government should do what it does best. The federal government is good at collecting and disseminating information. The states and school districts, being closer to the schools, teachers and parents than the federal government, are more likely to be flexible and pragmatic about designing reforms to meet the needs of particular schools.

However, under current law, state education departments have an incentive to show that schools and students are making steady progress, even if they are not. So the results of state tests, which are administered every year, are almost everywhere better than the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the benchmark federal test that is administered every other year.

Many states claim that 80 percent or more of their students are proficient in reading or math at the same time that the federal assessment shows only a minority of students in those states reaching its standard of proficiency. We will never know how well or poorly our students are doing until we have a consistent national testing program in which officials have no vested interest in claiming victory.

Under current law, Congress now decides precisely which sanctions and penalties are needed to reform schools, which is way beyond its competence. The leaders of the House and Senate Education Committees are fine men, but they do not know how to fix the nation’s schools.

The obvious solution is to reverse roles. Washington should supply unbiased information about student academic performance to states and local districts. It should then be the responsibility of states and local districts to improve performance.

Congress should also drop the absurd goal of achieving universal proficiency by 2014. Given that no nation, no state and no school district has ever reached 100 percent math and reading proficiency for all grades, it is certain that the goal cannot be met. Perpetuating this unrealistic ideal, however, guarantees that increasing numbers of schools will “fail” as the magic year 2014 gets closer.

Unless we set realistic goals for our schools and adopt realistic means of achieving them, we run the risk of seriously damaging public education and leaving almost all children behind.

Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University, was the assistant secretary of education for research from 1991 to 1993.