How to fix No Child Left Behind

March 12, 2015
Diane Ravich

Diane Ravich

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s commentary for EdSource last month, called “How Not to Fix No Child Left Behind,” consisted for the most part of mushy platitudes that must be measured against the realities of his actions over the past six years.

During that time, Duncan has aggregated an unprecedented power to tell states and districts how to operate. The administration’s Race to the Top program was not passed into law by Congress, yet it was funded with $5 billion awarded by Congress as part of the economic stimulus plan following the 2008 recession.

Duncan used that huge financial largesse to make himself the nation’s education czar. When states were most economically distressed, he dangled billions of dollars before them in a competition. They were not eligible to enter the competition unless they agreed to lift caps on opening more privately managed charter schools, to rely on test scores to a significant degree when evaluating teachers, to adopt “college-and-career-ready standards” (aka the Common Core standards, which had not even been completed in 2009 when the competition was announced) and to take dramatic action to “turn around” schools with low test scores (such as closing the school or firing all or most of the staff).

Almost every state applied for a share of the billions that Duncan controlled, and almost every state changed its laws to conform to his wishes, yet only 18 states and the District of Columbia won awards. Duncan added the same conditions to state waivers from NCLB’s unrealistic target of 100% proficiency in reading and math for all children in grades 3-8.

As an exercise in federal power, it was brilliant, as Duncan got almost every state to do what he wanted and make it appear to be voluntary. It is important to bear in mind that none of the so-called sanctions and remedies in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top was supported by evidence from research or experience.

State takeovers of low-performing schools have seldom (if ever) led to improvement; charter schools have a mixed and mostly unimpressive record; evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores has been unsuccessful because most of the factors that influence test scores (like family life) are beyond the control of teachers, and students are not randomly assigned to classes; and the effects of the Common Core standards are untested and unknown.

When Duncan writes “how not to fix NCLB,” he is responding to the Republicans’ revulsion to his heavy-handed exercise of power over the last six years. They want to curb his ability and that of future secretaries of education to overstep the long-understood federal system that limits the role of the U.S. Department of Education.

There is much to dislike in the Republicans’ rewrite of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which is the most recent version of America’s most important education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). They intend to make Title I funding for poor children portable, so that the money can be transferred to charter schools and perhaps vouchers as well. Instead of federal aid being targeted to help schools in poor communities, it will become available to spur school choice, which has long been the Republicans’ favorite remedy, despite the absence of evidence for the efficacy of either charters or vouchers.

Any genuine fix to NCLB would recognize that the administration of President George W. Bush took a wrong turn by changing ESEA from a law devoted to equity to a law devoted to testing and accountability. The switch from ESEA to NCLB was a substitution of punishment and sanctions for direct federal aid to the neediest districts. ESEA and the federal aid it supplied were supposed to help poor children, not convert their schools into test-prep factories or close them or privatize them.

Both Republicans and Democrats are determined to maintain the annual testing regime at the heart of NCLB. It is perplexing to see so many Democrats aligning themselves with George W. Bush’s educational legacy of annual testing. Teachers and parents know that high-stakes testing has distorted the purpose of education, has diverted billions of dollars to the testing industry, has discouraged teachers, has labeled children as “failures” in elementary school, and that NCLB is widely viewed as a failed law.

Advocates of the testing regime will point to improved test scores as “proof” that the demands of NCLB were correct. But they won’t admit that test scores improved even faster before NCLB was implemented, or that scores on international tests remain flat. Nor do they care that the relentless focus on testing has reduced the time available for the arts, science, history, civics, foreign languages and physical education. Thus, the quality of education for most children has been reduced in pursuit of higher test scores.

Over the past six years, the evidence showing the invalidity of Duncan’s “reforms” continues to accumulate, yet he insists on ignoring it. He loves charters, even though they intensify segregation and the zero-tolerance policies of “no excuses” charters create harsh disciplinary environments, leading to high suspension rates. He remains determined to judge teachers by test scores, even though the National Academy of Education, the American Educational Research Association and even the American Statistical Association warned against it. Duncan’s preferred method of teacher evaluation has been found to be unstable and inaccurate, but he doesn’t care or notice.

Enrollment in teacher education programs across the country and even in Teach for America has dropped sharply; veteran teachers are taking early retirement. But Duncan does not associate the lowered status of the teaching profession or the demoralization of teachers with his own punitive policies.

Instead of talking about “how not to fix NCLB,” here are a few ideas for how genuinely to fix NCLB:

Testing every child every year in grades 3-8 and 11 is an enormous waste of money and instructional time. Testing samples of students, as the NAEP does, tells us whatever we need to know. Teachers should write their own tests; they know what they taught and what their students should have learned. Use normed standardized tests only for diagnostic purposes, to help students, not to reward or punish them and not to reward or punish their teachers or close their schools.

Policymakers may decide to reauthorize NCLB and give it a new name. But if they maintain the current program of high-stakes testing, as both Secretary Duncan and the Republicans want, they will feed the fires of the anti-testing movement. They will confront angry parents, students and educators who know that testing has become too consequential, too punitive and too frequent. High-performing nations do not test every child every year. We shouldn’t either.


Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University, is the author of “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.”  She was Assistant Secretary of Education for Research and Improvement in the administration of President George H.W. Bush from 1991-93.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent solely those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please contact us.

Exit mobile version