No Child: The Problem of Defining the Problem

No Child Left Behind doesn't come up in Congress for reauthorization until next year, but that hasn't stopped a lively discussion from taking place over ...
by | August 16, 2006

Nochild No Child Left Behind doesn't come up in Congress for reauthorization until next year, but that hasn't stopped a lively discussion from taking place over how to change the law -- one that actually began as soon as lawmakers approved the legislation.

As I learned at a session at the National Conference of State Legislatures' annual meeting in Nashville yesterday, that debate begins with defining what's wrong with the law currently. Despite the best efforts to suggest otherwise by the lone U.S. Department of Education official in attendance, the answer seems to be quite a bit. But the interesting thing is that the complaints fall into two categories: Ones that suggest the current federal role is too small and ones that suggest federal involvement has been too heavy-handed or irrational.

In the first category (Feds' involvement is too small):

* States define for themselves what constitutes "proficiency." This creates "the mother of all perverse incentives," according to Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. States have strong motivation to make the tests easier or the bar for proficiency lower, as Missouri openly did recently and other states likely have been doing more surreptitiously.

* The program is underfunded, especially since Title I funding has been cut in recent years.

* There's no requirement that teachers be effective instructors. The focus is only on qualifications.

And in the second category (Feds' invovlement is too big):

* Due to all the subcategories and different grade levels involved, there are 217 ways for a K-8 school to fail under the law. Schools that succeed in 216 ways are lumped with those with broader problems.

* The law doesn't take into account improvement, only absolute proficiency.

* There's no incentive for schools to dedicate resources for students who are already proficient.

* Immigrants who enter American schools knowing little English are required to pass the tests too soon.

* Many special education students are required to take tests they have no chance of passing, a policy that can hurt their self-esteem in addition to causing schools to fail.

* The requirement that all teachers be "highly qualified" is needlessly onerous.

* The law will eventual require 100% of students to show proficiency. Perfection is impossible.

While these two lines of criticism might well be contradictory, Petrelli thinks he has the answer to both of them. He wants the federal government to mandate a national test similar to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, but, besides that, give states a lot more freedom. Others pointed out, however, that the bargain states were supposed to be getting from NCLB all along was flexibility in exchange for accountability and they didn't want to be fooled twice. 

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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