For the record, my first anti-No Child Left Behind (NCLB) article was commissioned by Newsday in late 2000 and published January 28, 2001. At the time, NCLB was a no-name plan, the administration not yet having ripped off the slogan of the Children's Defense Fund. But even then I saw not a great civil rights act as some, but yet another Orwellian double-speak program like Clear Skies, Clean Waters, and Healthy Forests--a program to accomplish the opposite of its avowed intent.
NCLB would funnel large sums of public funds into the private sector through vouchers, transfer much control of public education to private companies, and to reduce or destroy the influence of two Democratic power bases, the teachers unions. Congress killed the voucher provisions, substituting "Supplemental Educational Services" (SES) through which mostly private firms currently gobble up about $2 billion a year. SES consists mostly of tutoring programs or small group instruction that must occur outside the normal school day.
But as the law enters its fifth year, even its supporters can no longer ignore that the law is imploding. On November 30, Frederick Hess, Education Director for the American Enterprise Institute and Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation convened a conference, "Fixing Failing Schools: Are the Tools in the NCLB Toolkit Working?" I attended.
After the first four presentations, moderator Finn declared that instead of providing sweet cakes and coffee, "I should be handing out mood altering pharmaceuticals, those that deal with depression." No later presentations offered anything to elevate Finn's mood as one scholar after another delivered evidence on this failed provision or that failed provision and the law's failure to accomplish its stated goal: to elevate the achievement of poor children and minorities.
Charged with summarizing the day, former assistant secretary of education for Bush I, Diane Ravitch, declared that the answer to the conference title's question was clearly, "No!"
THE CHOICE TOOL IS NOT WORKING.
First off, she had seen NCLB label as failures schools that she thought were terrific. That can happen because of how NCLB judges schools. The law requires schools to report test scores by many subcategories of students: by grade, ethnicity, special education status, English Language Learner status, etc. Most schools have 37 subcategories. If for two years any one subcategory in a school fails to make an arbitrary, predetermined gain in test scores called "Adequate Yearly Progress," (AYP), the law declares that the whole school has failed and requires it to offer all students the option to transfer to a "successful" school. It is absurd to call a school with one lagging sub-category "failing." It's like saying a pennant-winning baseball team is actually a loser because its stolen-base production is below average.
Ravitch noted that few parents in "failing" schools choose to send their children to other schools: in overcrowded city schools there are no seats and in the sparsely populated rural regions there are no other schools. It can be a 2 hour drive to find a "successful" rural school except in parts of Alaska and Hawaii where planes are necessary. Most importantly, often only one subgroup fails to make AYP and thus most parents--rightly--don't perceive the "failed" school as failing.
THE SES TOOL IS NOT WORKING.
If one subcategory in a school fails to make AYP for three consecutive years, the school must offer the tutoring available through the SES provisions. Not many people make use of this either. Some accuse schools of failing to tell parents about SES and they do have a "perverse incentive" to hold back information on SES: They lose part of their funding to pay for these services. More importantly, though, there is no evidence that these private companies can do the job better. Ravitch opined that some of them were clearly "fly-by-night outfits and hucksters."
THE RESTRUCTURING TOOL IS NOT WORKING.
After four or more years of failing to make AYP, schools can be "restructured" in a variety of ways--by a state takeover, by firing the staff or by reconstituting as a charter school. It's a rare occurrence. District administrators rationally point to the fact that usually only one or subgroups are failing, most often special education students or children who do not speak English as their native tongue. Under these circumstances, why should they disrupt the entire school?
These depressing data on the failure of the toolkit were coming from people most of whom can be considered friends of NCLB. They might have entertained doubts about a provision or two, but they hardly constitute critics of the law. Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation worked at the U. S. Department of Education for four years helping to craft it and put it in place, yet on this day he coined a neologism for it: "unimplementable."
In contrast to the conference speakers, Secretary of Education Spellings last August said, "I talk about No Child Left Behind like Ivory soap: It's 99.9 percent pure or something. There's not much needed in the way of change." Asked by reporters if she really meant the law was 99.9 percent close to working properly, she said, "I think it is that close."
If Spellings still believes that, the operations of her department could be the subject of a book except that the title that comes most readily to mind has already been used: State of Denial. NCLB comes up for Congressional reauthorization in 2007. Radical revision is required.
The entire conference can be viewed or listened to at www.aei.org. Click on "events" then on "past events."