A Report Card for No Child Left Behind
By Dan Lips
As students head back to school, Congress is preparing for its
own schoolwork assignment due this fall: debating and voting on the
future of No Child Left Behind. The outcome of this
debate will have big stakes for the future of schools in your
Passed in 2002, No Child Left Behind, or "NCLB," offered the
most sweeping changes to federal education policy in a generation.
The 1,100-page bill increased federal spending on K-12 education
programs by 26 percent and created new rules and regulations
governing the 96,000 public schools across the country. Most
importantly, the law required states to test students annually and
show consistent growth in academic achievement. It set a national
goal that all children perform at grade-level in reading and math
by 2014, when, thus, no child will be failing.
So, after five years, how should parents and taxpayers grade
NCLB? Consider the following report card:
Constraining federal spending:
F. Democrats in Congress continue to argue that
NCLB is grossly under-funded, but the truth is that federal
spending on education programs has grown by 35 percent since
President Clinton signed his last education budget. Federal
spending on NCLP totaled $23.5 billion in 2007, compared to just
$17.4 billion in 2001. This may sound like good news, but parents
and taxpayers should remember that a dollar spent by Washington
can't be spent by local government, and that federal dollars always
come with strings attached.
Streamlining bureaucracy and red tape:
F. Speaking of strings, NCLB has significantly
increased bureaucracy and regulation. According to the Office of
Management and Budget, NCLB has increased the annual paperwork
burden on state and local communities by 7 million hours, or $140
million. Funds that could be going to the classroom are being used
to pay bureaucrats to fill out paperwork.
Maintaining meaningful state testing:
C. NCLB has required states to focus a lot more
on testing. In some states that weren't very serious about their
testing before 2001, NCLB has called attention to low-performing
public schools. But states that already had quality testing systems
have been forced to waste time and resources trying to comply with
new federal rules. What's worse, there is good reason to believe
that many states are lowering testing standards to show more
students passing and to avoid federal sanctions. Researchers have
called this problem "the race to the bottom" and it is likely to
worsen as 2014 approaches.
Giving parents information and choices:
D. NCLB was supposed to give parents better
information about their children's schools, while offering parents
with kids trapped in failing schools the opportunity to choose
something better. Unfortunately, these goals have not been
realized. School report cards are often hard to understand and many
parents are not informed by their school district of their school
choice options. The "race to the bottom" threatens to render some
of this information meaningless and few kids have benefited from
the opportunity to transfer into better schools.
Restoring state and local control:
F. Congress and federal bureaucrats now control
decisions that were once left to state and local officials, such as
what qualifications teachers must have and what academic subjects
should be included in state tests.
Improving academic achievement:
Incomplete. It's simply too early to tell whether
NCLB has improved student achievement. On the National Assessment
of Educational Progress, which provides a cross-section of
educational achievement data based on a sample of students across
the country, there is no evidence of significant improvement in
American schools since 2002. If history is any guide, however, this
"incomplete" is likely to become an "F" before long.
For more than forty years, politicians in Washington, D.C. have
been trying to improve America's schools by spending more money and
creating new programs and regulations. But long-term measures of
students' academic achievement show that little progress has been
Despite its poor grades, NLCB has succeeded in one important
area - it has forged a national consensus around the idea that
every student deserves a quality education. But this agreement
should force people to rethink the strategies that have failed to
improve the nation's schools.
By now, one thing should be clear: When it comes to fixing
America's public schools, Washington doesn't have the answer.
Dan Lips is Education
Analyst at the Heritage Foundation.