Spider webs. Kudzu. Red tape.
It usually takes longer than five years for a federal program to evoke so many creepy metaphors. But Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) used all three in a recent speech at the Heritage Foundation marking the five-year anniversary of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
It is time, Cornyn said, to cut "the red tape and bureaucracy that, kudzu-like, seems to ensnarl the best of intentions by central planners." Cornyn's spider-web allusion came later in his speech.
But as Congress heads into the next reauthorization of NCLB, many educators and policymakers share his concern: that President Bush's vision for accountability-based education reform has slid predictably into the maw of what William Bennett once called the "education blob."
Recommendations to improve NCLB, issued Feb. 13 by the Aspen Institute's Commission on No Child Left Behind, are a mixed bag. On the plus side, the commission said Congress should require schools to keep parents better informed about supplemental education services-such as school-paid tutoring-and "choice" provisions available to kids in failing public schools. But other recommendations, such as increased federal enforcement on some NCLB noncompliance issues, would nudge public education even further under Washington's thumb.
The program didn't start off that way.
"I do not want to be the national principal," President Bush said in 2000. "I believe in local control of schools." Indeed, the 31-page NCLB blueprint the newly elected president sent to Congress would have set states and local school districts free to innovate in the interest of improving student performance. The plan also had teeth: Parents would have the power to pull their kids from failing schools and move them to better ones, taking a chunk of federal money with them.
But lawmakers under the sway of teachers unions, most notably Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), filed down NCLB's teeth and extracted some whole. In the end, the version of NCLB that emerged from Congress featured gains in accountability and transparency, but only a feint toward market-based consequences meant to force schools to improve by allowing parents to remove their kids from those that didn't.
Still, even the unions couldn't turn aside NCLB's regulatory thunder. In its current incarnation, the legislation requires all public schools to:
- Meet "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) toward grade-level proficiency of every student in math and reading by the academic year 2013-2014.
- Meet an absolute level of performance in both subject areas that is uniformly applied to all "subgroups" of students in a school, including low-income, limited-English, disabled, and minority learners.
- Administer standardized tests in math and reading to 95 percent of all students and 95 percent of each subgroup within a school. A school can fail to "meet AYP" if a single subgroup fails either its performance target or the 95 percent participation requirement.
- Undergo a series of sanctions if they fail to meet AYP for two years running. Sanctions range from requiring schools to offer supplemental educational services (such as outside tutoring) to allowing parents to send their children to a different public school.
Such accountability requirements have yielded what Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform (CER), calls "a net positive with some core concerns."
"Before NCLB, there was never a debate on [educational] quality," said Allen. "Even to see people in both parties having to talk about quality is an extraordinary thing."
But while the law has shed more sunlight into the cloistered confines of public education bureaucracies, she said, it "has amplified the fact that we still are not doing a very good job and demonstrated that there really is an education establishment that has a problem with doing its job."
Indeed, the major unions so despise NCLB that they are suing the federal government, charging that the law is an "unfunded mandate." Meanwhile, conservatives also are dissatisfied-much like a bride who, having thought herself engaged to a sensible, hardworking groom, finds herself married to a fast-spending control freak.
"We have from the beginning supported the ideas of accountability and annual testing," said Tracey Bailey, former National Teacher of the Year and director of public policy for the Association of American Educators, an independent teachers group. "But we are concerned about growing federal encroachment into what has been historically-and some would say constitutionally-the province of the states."
State and local education administrators in 2006 had to spend an additional 6.7 million hours on NCLB-related recordkeeping and reporting, according to the Office of Management and Budget. And federal education spending has swelled by more than 25 percent over the past five years.
Is NCLB increasing student performance in return? That depends on who's doing the measuring. The NCLB commission's report, released Feb. 13, stacked 2003 annual assessment testing for fourth-grade reading in the 50 states and the District of Columbia against the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The NAEP assessment, known colloquially as "the nation's report card," has long been considered the gold standard of educational assessment because of the independence of NAEP's governing board.
The comparison revealed a startling disconnect-a "proficiency gap" that ranged, on average, from 20 to 50 percentage points.
For example, Colorado's state test showed that 87 percent of fourth-graders were proficient in reading. But the NAEP assessment showed that only 37 percent were proficient. Similar disparities cropped up for New Hampshire, New Jersey, Minnesota, and 22 other states. In Mississippi, the gap was 69 percentage points.
The wide chasm between NAEP and state-by-state results has caused some education researchers to question whether state education boards are "gaming the system," deliberately setting rock-bottom standards in order to meet NCLB's AYP requirements.
Meanwhile, NCLB's subgroup paradigm may not play fair with schools that have a high percentage of low-income kids. A 2005 study published in the Education Researcher examined academic improvement in Virginia, which has used the same state assessment test since 1998. Mathematics scores in the state remained flat between 1998 and 2001. Between 2001 and 2003, post-NCLB, students in middle- and high-poverty schools improved in math and reading at higher rates than those in low-poverty schools. But because income levels correlate strongly with academic performance and the failure of a single subgroup can torpedo a school's ability to meet AYP, high- and middle-poverty schools were more likely to be identified as a "school in need of improvement."
Education researchers say NCLB should take more factors into account when assessing the achievement of low-income learners. But the NCLB commission is recommending more-not less-homogeneity, such as the formation of national academic standards.
Some conservative groups, such as the Fordham Foundation, have endorsed some version of national standards in the past. But CER's Jeanne Allen said such a move would invite more federal bureaucracy. "If NCLB had to be created to stem the tide of bad federal involvement, what makes us think that increasing federal involvement on the standards level would improve education?"
Allen said academic standards should "be created closer to home," where parents and voters can hold education bureaucracies accountable.
Sen. Cornyn is working to that end, along with Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). This spring, the senators will introduce the A-PLUS Act of 2007. The bill would restore to NCLB a "charter state" option, one element of the original Bush plan that wound up on Congress' cutting-room floor. A-PLUS would allow states to opt out of federal regulatory burdens by signing five-year performance agreements with the Department of Education in exchange for flexibility. Each participating state would have to come up with its own academic achievement goals and demonstrate an accountability system for meeting them.
Sen. DeMint said the measure is a necessary first step toward rescuing NCLB. The program "started with some good ideas, but what Congress didn't mess up, the bureaucracy has messed up," he said. "We need to look at a way to allow states to get out of it in a way that would let them do it responsibly."