No Child to the rescue?

Today, Ali and Rothstein assess the value of No Child Left Behind. Yesterday, they debated whether it's worth trying to close the achievement gap. Later in the week, they'll discuss reasons for lagging minority achievement, reforms to boost students' performance and more.

No Child Left Behind's wake-up call

Richard, First, let's be honest about what the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is and isn't. It's not a magic bullet that can fix all that is wrong with public education in this country; no single law can do that. But it also is not the source of inexcusable educational practices — most notably, decisions to narrow the curriculum or teach to the test — for which it is so frequently blamed.

What the law is, in fact, is the boldest step our nation has taken on issues of education and race since 1954's Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka. NCLB powerfully uncouples academic expectations from skin color, socioeconomic status and geography. It allows each state to develop its own standards and tests but says plainly that the state will base school evaluations on whether all groups of children are being taught grade-level skills in reading and mathematics, and by qualified teachers — no matter where in the state you live, your race or ethnicity, how much money your parents earn or the language spoken in your home. It's as simple as that.

It is hard, really, to understand why we spend so much time arguing about whether NCLB's goals are the right goals and so little time trying to meet them. Indeed, though student achievement is climbing, we have not seen a substantial narrowing of California's achievement gap over the last four years. At least now, though, we're talking about it more than ever.

NCLB's most profound effect thus far has been to provide the data that signal where problems exist. Before NCLB, we all had gut instincts about which schools were "good" and which ones weren't. Since the law's enactment, we now know that some of the schools we thought were "good" are not for some groups of students. It has also revealed that some of the "bad" schools are worse than we ever realized.

NCLB says that it is unacceptable to let students languish in underperforming schools year after year without help and without options. NCLB does not take money away from these schools or otherwise "punish" them, despite all the misinformation you may have heard on this point. Instead, the law says that if a school has a problem, then the school district and state have a problem too, because we can't expect struggling schools to turn around all on their own.

Though California assessed English-language learners and students with disabilities before NCLB, it did not hold schools accountable for their performance. Worse still, California's own state accountability system, the Academic Performance Index, set lower expectations for poor kids and kids of color, requiring them to make annual progress of only 80% of the school-wide goal. Imagine saying that it's OK for a school to expect 20% less academic growth from kids with a different skin color. NCLB helped change that: California has since improved the API because the federal law made the state confront these problems.

For the most part, NCLB has clarified the challenges we face as a state. And while it hasn't provided our schools with all of the resources they need, it has increased federal education funding in California by 50% since it was enacted. The Los Angeles Unified School District alone received more than $400 million under NCLB in 2007. The money is important, no doubt about it, and we need more. NCLB should be fully funded.

As Congress works on reauthorizing NCLB, there are several changes that could help make the law more effective:

- First, schools should be measured by their students' growth over time. We should remember, however, that California hasn't yet built the data systems it needs to do this, so the federal law could provide important incentives for California and other states to finally connect schools into the Information Age.

- Second, the law should provide a framework for distinguishing between schools that need a little help, those that need a lot of help and those that need to be completely turned around. The law could do more to close funding gaps in high-poverty schools. Congress should close the loophole that lets school districts ignore differences in teacher salaries when asking whether every school gets its fair share of funding. (

- Finally, states that adopt standards aligned to the demands of colleges and careers should get more flexibility in setting goals and timelines for accountability.

But the real importance of NCLB — its function as a signaling device — should not be changed. It's like an alarm clock telling us that it's time to get up and do the hard work to help our schools get better. The question is whether we have the courage, compassion and common sense to address these truths, or would we rather continue to just roll over and hit the snooze button.

Russlynn Ali is the executive director of The Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based think tank focused on closing the achievement gaps separating low-income students and students of color from other young Californians.

No child left untested on math and reading

I disagree, Russlynn. NCLB has done great harm to American education, particularly to disadvantaged children. Today, I describe one kind of harm — curriculum narrowing. Later this week, I'll discuss others, such as creating fanciful standards that make failure inevitable and widespread misidentification of both good and underperforming schools.

It is surprising that anyone would deny NCLB's curriculum narrowing. The law holds schools accountable only for math and reading. If you hold any institution accountable for only some of its goals, the result is inevitably what sociologists have long called "goal displacement" — doing more of what you are accountable for and less of what you are not.

This is well known in organizational theory. Management expert W. Edwards Deming urged businesses to "eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals" because they encourage a focus on short-, not long-term, results. Peter Drucker gave similar advice. Today, management consultants urge "balanced score cards" that use qualitative judgment to measure corporate success, along with financial indicators. They recognize that unbalanced score cards, such as the one used by NCLB, stress only easily measured goals and create incentives to downplay others.

Even stock market investors don't care only about simple profitability; they are guided by sophisticated financial analysts who dig beneath publicly reported numbers to discern whether firms' more difficult-to-measure practices are likely to lead to long-term success.

After welfare reform was enacted in 1996, some states rewarded local welfare agencies if clients held jobs — any jobs — for 90 days, a fairly easy thing to measure. Agencies got rewards by overemphasizing job placement and underemphasizing skill development, which is much harder to measure. Consequently, few welfare recipients were trained for good jobs lasting more than 90 days. These flawed accountability systems for welfare reform were abandoned.

Schools have many goals: teaching basic math and reading, but also critical thinking, citizenship, physical and emotional health habits, appreciation of the arts, self-discipline, responsibility and conflict resolution. Nobody suggests ignoring better math and reading instruction, but to increase low-income and minority children's chances for success, we must guarantee them a balanced education and preparation in all these areas. Schools threatened with sanctions for failure in only the most easily measured areas will inevitably divert attention from others.

School surveys have carefully documented this unsurprising nationwide consequence of NCLB: reduced social studies, science, art, music and physical education, particularly in schools serving low-income children, where math and reading scores are lowest and where consequences of spending time on, say, history, rather than more math drills are most severe. So even if NCLB succeeded in narrowing achievement gaps in math and reading (it has not), it has widened gaps in important but less easily measured areas.

For this reason, two former assistant secretaries of Education (under President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush), Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch, once prominent NCLB advocates, have reconsidered and now write:

"We should have seen this coming [and] should have anticipated the "zero sum" problem. ... More emphasis on some things would inevitably mean less attention to others. ... We were wrong."

If NCLB continues, they write:

"Rich kids will study philosophy and art, music and history, while their poor peers fill in bubbles on test sheets. The lucky few will spawn the next generation of tycoons, political leaders, inventors, authors, artists and entrepreneurs. The less lucky masses will see narrower opportunities."

In Senate testimony, historian David McCullough observed, "Because of No Child Left Behind, sadly, history is being put on the back burner or taken off the stove altogether in many or most schools, in favor of math or reading." Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor now co-chairs the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, an organization that laments, under NCLB, "As civic learning has been pushed aside, society has neglected a fundamental purpose of American education, putting the health of our democracy at risk."

Among my graduate students two years ago was a bright and dedicated recent Los Angeles elementary school teacher. Here is what she wrote in her term paper:

"From my experience of being an elementary school teacher at a low-performing urban school in Los Angeles, I can say that the pressure became so intense that we had to show how every single lesson we taught connected to a standard that was going to be tested. This meant that art, music and even science and social studies were not a priority and were hardly ever taught. We were forced to spend 90% of the instructional time on reading and math. This made teaching boring for me and was a huge part of why I decided to leave the profession."

The demoralization of good teachers is another consequence of NCLB. It should not be reauthorized.

(Readers seeking documentation of my claims in this series should write to me at

Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington and author of "Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap" He was formerly the national education columnist for the New York Times.

<< Previous day's Dust-Up  |  Main Page  |  Next day's Dust-Up >>
Day 1  |  Day 2  |  Day 3  |  Day 4