Extreme Makeover: NCLB Edition

Representative George Miller's declaration that NCLB is "not fair" and "not flexible" and his pledge to quickly bring a reauthorization bill forward provide an opportunity to move past the ill-conceived stances that have dominated the debate. Neither the administration's reflexive defense of the law's unworkable accountability system nor calls to "abolish" NCLB provide a promising path forward. Instead, sensible redesign starts by recognizing that today's NCLB awkwardly welds together two disparate accountability models--rendering each dysfunctional.

Last month, in a much-discussed speech at the National Press Club, Representative George Miller, the chairman of the House education committee and a principal author of No Child Left Behind, upended debate regarding reauthorization. Miller declared, "The American people have a very strong sense that the No Child Left Behind Act is not fair, not flexible, and is not funded. And they are not wrong."

With that declaration, and his pledge to bring a reauthorization bill to the floor next month, there is a window in which it may be possible to move the NCLB reauthorization debate past the two reflexive, unappealing, and ill-conceived positions that have thus far dominated the field. There is the possibility that Miller's plan will offer a respite to those who embrace the law's principles but believe its champions have planted their flag on the wrong hill.

In truth, NCLB is not really a coherent effort to improve schools or instruction. It's more like a civil rights manifesto masquerading as an educational accountability system.

On one side of the ongoing debate is the Bush administration and its (mostly Democratic) allies urging, in the words of Deputy Education Secretary Ray Simon, that "we need to stay the course." With Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings on record as terming the law "99.9 percent pure," like "Ivory soap," the administration has chalked concerns up to implementation glitches (although it's also trotted out a list of modest changes it wants made.) Democratic champions, most notably Senator Ted Kennedy, agree that the statute is fundamentally sound but insist that it's under funded. The bipartisan Aspen Commission concurred that improving NCLB is primarily a question of additional mandates.

On the other side is the "pushback caucus," led by Republicans like Senator Jim DeMint and Congressman Pete Hoekstra, and drawing plaudits from unlikely fellow travelers like the National Education Association. Having voted for NCLB in 2001 mostly out of fealty to a new GOP president, these conservatives are suffering from severe buyer's remorse. They are incensed by federal overreach, including testing rules that identify decent schools as "failing to make adequate yearly progress," intrusive regulations regarding required changes in those schools, and incentives that may encourage states to fiddle with standards and testing systems.

Both sides have it half right. NCLB's defenders are right that Uncle Sam has a legitimate role in promoting accountability and providing political cover to state and local reformers. Absent firm federal support for transparency and improvement, experience has shown that states won't change much.

Yet the DeMint-Hoekstra crowd is right that NCLB, as designed, is inept and self-defeating.

This law could be reauthorized in a way that preserves its virtues while addressing its flaws. But doing so requires a retreat from posturing, pretense and overreaching.

NCLB famously declares that every U.S. school-child will attain "proficiency" in reading and math by 2014. While nobody doubts that the number of "proficient" students should increase dramatically from today's woeful level, no educator believes that universal proficiency in 2014 is attainable. Only politicians promise such things. It's as if Congress opted to fight crime by declaring that all cities will be crime-free by 2014.

In truth, NCLB is not really a coherent effort to improve schools or instruction. It's more like a civil rights manifesto masquerading as an educational accountability system. (This helps explain why NCLB enjoys rock-solid support among social-justice crusaders like the Citizens Commission for Civil Rights and the Education Trust).

Unfortunately, its utopian pledge and heavy-handed design disregard almost everything that hard decades of efforts to "reinvent government" have taught about improving public-sector accountability and boosting student achievement.

Fixing the problem requires recognizing that NCLB is really two distinct accountability systems--a national "X-ray" and a "behavior modification system."

Both are plausible and meritorious on their own terms. And both have a place in federal policy. But they cannot reasonably be linked to one another, much less to the grand "every child proficient by 2014" aspiration, as NCLB tries to do.

The value of an "X-ray" of school performance across the land is clear. NCLB's dictate that all states regularly test all their students in key subjects constituted a historic victory. The X-ray's accuracy is compromised, however, when this moment-in-time look at student achievement becomes the basis for gauging the effectiveness of schools and educators--much less triggering interventions or remedies. Unfortunately, this is just what NCLB requires today.

We don't judge doctors based on whether their patients are sick today but by how much patients' health improves under their care. Judging professional performance on the basis of a one-time scan fosters misbehavior, leads states to play games with standards, and may even discredit the X-ray itself.

Meanwhile, prodding public-sector institutions to set goals, monitor performance, and then reward excellence and intervene in mediocrity has been a signal success for reformers of the left and right. Decades of effort, touted in iconic books like Reinventing Government and championed through the 1990s by the Gore Commission, have taught us that sensibly structured accountability systems encourage self-interested workers to take goals seriously, focus on outcomes, and employ all the levers at their disposal to produce those outcomes.

Such "behavior modification" is compromised, however, when those on the ground view the targets as unattainable. If workers know they are unlikely to succeed, the goal becomes avoiding trouble when they fail. By making failure practically inevitable, utopian goals perversely focus employees on band-aids and actions that mask their inability to attain those goals.

The trick is not to retreat from accountability, but to thoughtfully separate these components from one another and from naively heroic expectations. Lawmakers should insist on a national X-ray using a uniform assessment that makes it simple to compare achievement across schools, districts, states, and demographic groups. And every state should be required to assess how effectively schools are boosting student achievement and to intervene appropriately in faltering schools and mediocre districts--or else forfeit federal funds.

NCLB could have a bright future. If it gets an extreme makeover.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and director of education policy studies at AEI. Chester E. Finn Jr. is the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. They are the editors of No Remedy Left Behind: Lessons from a Half-Decade of NCLB (AEI Press, 2007).

Notes

1. George Miller, "Chairman Miller Remarks on the Future of No Child Left Behind Education Law," U.S. House of Representatives Press Release, July 30, 2007. Available online at http://www.house.gov/apps/list/speech/edlabor_dem/RelJul30NCLBSpeech.html
2. Amit Paley, "'No Child' Target Is Called Out of Reach," Washington Post, March 14, 2007.
3. Lois Romano, "Tweaking of 'No Child' Seen," Washington Post, August 31, 2006.

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