Do American Schools Really Need NCLB 2.0?
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
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 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
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.
Dan Lips is an Education
Analyst at the Heritage Foundation www.Heritage.org.