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It’s Time to Repeal No Child Left Behind

What’s the Big Idea?

As the K-12 school year starts up again in full force, it’s worth asking: are American public schools really failing?

According to the measure set by the country’s most important piece of federal education legislation, the answer is yes. In 2011, nearly half of American schools failed to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in reading, math, and attendance. Had Secretary of Education Arne Duncan not stepped in last August and overrided the law’sunreachable deadline that all students in schools receiving federal funding be proficient in math and reading by 2014, the percentage of “failing schools” would have been nearly 100%. 

But assessing whether students are receiving a quality education is a far more complex process than the legislation allows for, argues education historian Diane RavitchWatch the interview:

The former Assistant Secretary of Education has recanted her earlier advocacy of the standards and accountability agenda embraced by ed reformers like Wendy Kopp, Michelle Rhee, and Chester Finn.  

“I went through a period after I served in the Bush administration of being very involved in some very conservative think tanks where I shared their enthusiasm for testing, for accountability, for choice,” Ravitch told Big Think in an interview last November. “And I don’t think I gave up my critical faculties, but I think I was hopeful, because I was always very critical of the quality of education. I thought our kids needed so much more. I wanted to see and have always wanted to see schools where children got excited about studying the history and science and math and where the arts were very important — so I thought the testing, accountability and choice would lead us in that direction.”

Looking back, she wonders why she ever thought that. Under NCLB, student progress is evaluated by state-administered standardized tests, which she now believes undermine effective teaching and squash creative thinking. Worse, all of the solutions in the act seem to be based on holding students and teachers accountable, but there are no provisions for holding leadership — administrators, local legislators, even Congress — accountable. 

What’s the Significance?

Ravitch can pinpoint the exact moment she changed her mind about NCLB. “I was immersed in that world, the think tank world, those were my friends,” she explains. “I began to hear more and more reports of districts dropping the arts, cutting back on time for their study and as I began to hear early reports of cheating, of teachers being held responsible for things over which they had no control.”

In 2006, she was invited to speak at a conference at the American Enterprise Institute. By the end of the day, she’d seen twelve papers presented on NCLB, none of which found that the legislation was actually fulfilling its goal to close the achievement gap. Why not?  

I found myself looking at the NAEP scores as they emerged and realizing there was very little change — this hoped-for transformation hadn’t happened… I thought… that the whole of No Child Left Behind was based on two things. First of all, Congress longed to have accountability. Everybody had been complaining for 15 or 20 years there was no accountability and we needed accountability. And along came candidate George W. Bush saying there’d been a miracle in Texas, that Texas had simply imposed this testing system and that if you test every child every year and how schools gave some rewards to those that improved and punishments to those or humiliation to those that didn’t improve, wonderful things would happen. The achievement gap would start to close. The graduation rate would go up. Test scores would go up.  All these great things happened just by testing.  

So Congress bought into the idea of the Texas Miracle, but I started looking again at some of those early studies and saying, jeez, you know, there doesn’t seem to be a miracle.  What happened to that miracle?  Now, ten years later, we know that there was some improvement in Texas. There was some improvement in a lot of places, but Texas is not at the top of the pack. Massachusetts is the top of the pack. Texas is right in the middle.  

It’s not the schools, but the law which has failed, she says. U.S. education policy, including Race to the Top, needs to be rethought. Instead of pitting states against each other and making teacher and student evaluation a high-stakes, zero sum game, the ethos of competition behind the model must be replaced by a collaborative, problem-solving framework in which all children are winners.

One little known fact about NCLB is that it’s a reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was passed with the express purpose of providing “direct funding for poor children.” The act was never about creating opportunities for all children to succeed, it was meant to correct clear-cut and extreme inequalities in the financing of public schools, which are still apparent today. 

The NCLB policy regime should be abandoned, says Ravitch. The ESEA should be revised, and Congress should start by asking, “What’s the purpose of the federal role in education?” 


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