The DeHavilland Blog

Friday, June 29, 2007

The argument for repealing NCLB

In an article on The Heritage Foundation website, Gene Hickok, one of the architects of the No Child Left Behind Act, offers his reasons (and the reasons of several Republican lawmakers) for now wanting to roll back NCLB. As a supporter of NCLB in principle, I'm not sure if he's right or not, but he certainly makes a strong argument.

He has two primary points: the first relates to the constitutionality of federal involvement in education, and the second focuses on the fact that it's so easy for states to subvert the intent of the law - much easier, in fact, than living up to its vision.

We're already seeing hard evidence of the second point: rather than improving student performance to meet standards, as NCLB requires, states are simply lowering their standards so that more students seem to be performing. Stephen Colbert sums it up nicely (with a hat tip to Alexander Russo of This Week in Education for first highlighting the clip):





The catch-22 is that if we respect the separation of state and federal powers on education, we can't do anything about this - the program has to be voluntary (which it is - states don't have to participate, only if they want the Title I funds that go along with it), and the feds can't dictate the standards, assessment instruments, or proficiency cutoff points. But if the feds don't set the criteria for those things, states will continue to game the system in order to continue receiving the desired funds without doing what it takes to actually improve student outcomes.

He's almost certainly right in saying that education system will find ways to subvert oversight of any kind if at all possible, and the law - under its current structure, and respecting the current thinking on the constitutionality of federal involvement in public education - prevents us from doing anything about that. It's a depressing acknowledgement, but it may be true.

But I find the alternative equally distasteful: repealing back a recognized accountability tool and leaving states to their own devices. The reason for the NCLB groundswell in the first place was that states weren't being transparent in their reporting - think back to 2000 and tell me how many states were offering disaggregated data on student performance, accurate dropout statistics, or any independent and reliable information on student achievement.

While Hickok holds up the charter school movement as evidence that the push for improvement at the state level than the federal, I'm less sanguine than he about the likelihood of transparency in reporting if NCLB is repealed. It's possible, I suppose, and there are programs in some states that do offer good information for those dedicated enough to seek it (such as Tennessee's TVAAS program).

But I still don't understand how rolling back NCLB will alter the universal, fundamental, political desire to seem, rather than to be. If the states are so willing to subvert NCLB, how can we expect that they'll be transparent and hardworking without it?

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