By Dan Lips
Congressional committees will soon begin hearings on No Child Left Behind, opening the ninth reauthorization process for the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. This is the education policy world's equivalent of the Olympics, and reformers from across the political spectrum are now unveiling their recommendations.
Among these recommendations is a widely-publicized new report from the Commission on No Child Left Behind, which was co-chaired by former Governors Roy Barnes of Georgia and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and organized by the Aspen Institute. The commission's 200-page report includes more than seventy recommendations for how Congress should change No Child Left Behind, which the commission says "must be dramatically improved."
Unfortunately, the commission's recommendations miss the central lessons of NCLB's track-record over the past five years: The federal government's ability to spur widespread improvement in America's schools is very limited. While NCLB embodied good intentions, its use of federal power to pursue them has led to unintended consequences, which the commission would remedy by further extending federal intervention. The report's central theme is that Washington can and should have all the answers, despite so much evidence to the contrary.
A case in point is NCLB's Highly Qualified Teacher (HQT) requirement, which the commission urges should be expanded into "HQET" - Highly Qualified Effective Teachers. It is a welcome sign that the commission recognizes that qualifications like teacher certification don't necessarily improve effectiveness, but trying to solve the teacher effectiveness puzzle from Washington would be fraught with problems.
A second example is the commission's suggestion to add a "Highly Effective Principal" requirement. This would place new licensing and accountability requirements on school leaders. While turning the reform spotlight to the key role of school leaders is, again, welcome, top-down certification requirements won't provide the results the commission anticipates.
Another unwise recommendation is its push toward national academic standards and testing - a strategy that has been pursued unsuccessfully already as part of a broader plan to lift America's schools. In the 1990s, the Clinton Administration established the objective that all students would reach proficiency by 2000 (sound familiar?). That challenge was set by the Goals 2000: Educate America Act of 1994.
To reach that goal, the federal government funded the creation of national academic content standards similar to what the NCLB Commission is proposing. Many of the projects - including math, English, and history - bogged down in debates over subject-matter content and pedagogical issues. When the standards were finally released, the National Standards for United States History turned out to be so riddled with political correctness and so negative in their characterization of America's history that the U.S. Senate resolved, by a 98 to 1 vote, to reject them.
Today, some advocates of national standards urge that centralization through national testing is the only way to ensure that all states adopt high academic standards. But this strategy fails to recognize the great risk of further centralization. If standards advocates recognize that some state standards are better than others, how can they be sure that Washington will get it right?
This is the failed premise of the original No Child Left Behind and now the NCLB Commission's report. Americans shouldn't place that much trust in Congress and the U.S. Department of Education to improve America's schools. The federal government, after all, is a minority partner in American education, providing only 8 percent of the funding for local public schools.
For forty years, taxpayers have sent hundreds of billions of dollars to the IRS for federal education programs, but there is little evidence this investment has led to widespread improvement in America's schools. Instead, increased federal involvement in public schools has brought optimistic targets, like Goals 2000, and little actual progress toward meeting them.
The time has come for Congress to fundamentally rethink the balance between federal and state power in education. That begins by rejecting calls for No Child Left Behind 2.0.