Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of No Child Left Behind, "the most sweeping educational reform since the '60s"-but not many educators are blowing out the candles with wishes for many happy returns. The popularity of NCLB has wavered from the beginning, but today it's almost uniformly loathed. Liberals dismiss it, conservatives deride it, most teachers absolutely hate it, and nobody seems to know exactly how to fix it.
NCLB is actually a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which officially inserted the federal government into public education, and has kept it there through many reauthorizations and catchphrases. It's too much to say that the ESEA was the forerunner of educational decline in the United States-many factors contributed to that, and much earlier-but no one would argue that student performance has significantly improved since 1965.
On the left, NCLB is one more thing to hate about George W. Bush, but they forget that Bush achieved his signature domestic accomplishment with the help of left-wing Democrats like Ted Kennedy and George Miller. NCLB was the capstone of "the new tone" of bipartisanship, which came to mean that both sides hated it equally. But it seemed to have something for everybody: attention to minority and "at risk" kids and accountability for the schools that served them. The means to both ends is data: regular testing to see who knows what and when, and to what degree. Schools are required to share the data with parents, who in turn have the right to seek alternative schools if theirs doesn't meet acceptable standards.
NCLB still has its defenders, who praise its untiring efforts to bring up the test scores of minority students and point to the pile of data it has produced. But that's part of the problem, say detractors: With resources sliding to the lower end of the spectrum, high-achievers are being left behind. And tying money to test results creates both the opportunity and the motivation to cheat.
There's even disagreement about what test results actually reveal. Though math scores have improved, especially among minorities, reading scores are more ambiguous and reading pedagogy has been pressed more and more into a matter of "attacks" and "strategies," as though it were a battle. Worse: It's a rubric, where means are more vital than ends and specialists replace authors. Perhaps more children can read, but fewer want to.
Demands for "reform" will certainly be heeded, in a way that only tangles the situation more. NCLB will be up for reauthorization in 2014, and proposals are already on the table, particularly from the Senate education committee. The House has not followed suit, and the Obama administration is granting waivers to lower-performing states and districts who adopt the policy flavors of the moment. What does not emerge is a clear philosophy of education.
Nor is it like to emerge, because governing is general and statistical, and education is personal and individual. NCLB was an attempt by the government to get what it pays for, and the only way this can be determined on a large scale is by compiling huge amounts of data. Administrators and teachers rightly complain about being buried under paperwork, but that comes with the territory: You take the money, you accept the burden. But you also flatten the entire idea of education, which C. S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, summed up as one generation passing on the best of itself to the next. NCLB's greatest legacy is numbers.