Education Secretary Margaret Spellings recently commented that the No Child Left Behind Act is nearly perfect. "I talk about No Child Left Behind like Ivory soap: It's 99.9 percent pure," Spellings said.
Even if Secretary Spellings were right that NCLB is 99.9% pure, it still would not be the formula for what ails American education.
The current debate over NCLB overlooks a critical problem: Nothing the administration does under NCLB will ensure the law's promise that every child will be proficient in reading and math by 2014. For reasons unrelated to the law's merit, NCLB is simply not up to the task. Something far more profound and transformative must happen for American education to offer every child the opportunity to succeed.
The deeper problem is the existing institutional architecture of American public education. No Child Left Behind erects an accountability system atop the status quo and requires states to provide families with options when schools fail. But public education governance, structure, finance, management and politics remain intact.
Here is the heart of the problem: American public education -- because of the way it is structured, administered, funded and understood by parents, teachers, administrators and taxpayers -- is incapable of delivering on the promises of NCLB. The root of the problem isn't in the law; it's in the American education system. It can't get there from here.
Today's public education system essentially tells parents: "This is the school your child will attend. This is when we teach, what we teach and who will teach." In short, it puts the system ahead of the child.
We need an education environment that listens and responds when a parent says: "This is my child; these are my hopes and dreams for my child, his needs and interests, his strengths and weaknesses. Why should I entrust my child to your care?" We need educational opportunities that put the child first.
NCLB likely will show just how much needs to happen to achieve this. But the law itself can't help us do it. No federal law ever could.
To move us in the right direction, we need to toss aside certain assumptions. First, we must not confuse education with schooling. Education takes place long before a child enters school and lasts a lifetime. Schooling is about institutions and infrastructure. We need to focus on education in America, not just schooling.
Second, we need to put aside the tiresome debate over public versus private education. What matters is the quality of the education a child receives, not where he or she receives it. In the name of preserving public schooling, we have created obstacles to improving education for all our children. Public education belongs to the people. Shouldn't we be the ones deciding where our children go to school? Why should we feel comfortable with the government making such a fundamentally important decision?
A new vision of education in America should embrace the principles on which America is supposed to be based: freedom, equality, opportunity, responsibility and ownership. The status quo lacks freedom, and the façade of equality has allowed an achievement gap to haunt the nation. Millions are denied a real opportunity. Newly minted accountability systems have school administrators gagging and leave too many parents confused, resulting in too many failing to take responsibility for the future of our children.
As for ownership, our public schools have become institutions of government, serving bureaucracies rather than the public. It's as though the system owns us rather than we owning the system.
Imagine what education in America could look like with these new principles in place. With freedom, families could decide how best to educate their children. Equality would be measured in terms of the education children receive and each student's achievement, rather than merely in dollars spent per student. Responsibility would begin at home; parents would have the power to determine whether their children are receiving a quality education. This more robust notion of accountability would enable people to determine how much their investment yields in terms of a child's education.
Gradually, families might begin to take back ownership of their children's education. Ownership is essential, giving a sense of authority that could drive ongoing improvement in education. The relationship of family, child and education is direct and tangible, rather than distorted by the demands of a system.
Of course, we have far to go before this becomes reality. But it would be a mistake to think that No Child Left Behind delivers the education system we need. At best, it will help us understand just how far we have to go, fueling our frustrations and disappointments along the way. NCLB is a wake-up call. What's needed is an American education revolution.
Eugene Hickok is a Bradley fellow in education at The Heritage Foundation and Senior Policy Director at Dutko Worldwide. He was deputy secretary of education during President George W. Bush's first term.
First appeared in WashingtonPost.com