The Stakes 2008

What No Child Left Behind Left Behind

By Nicholas Lemann

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The biggest upward ratchet ever in the federal government’s role in public education—historically a state and local function—and possibly the most significant piece of domestic social legislation since the Great Society is George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, which sailed through Congress in the spring of 2001. Perhaps because so many of them don’t send their children to public school, the American chattering classes have been strangely uninterested in No Child Left Behind. It has not been even a midlevel campaign issue this year. But it is due to be reauthorized, and one of the most important decisions the next president will have to make is what to do about it.

No Child Left Behind is a national version of the "accountability" regimes in public education that swept across the states (including Arkansas when Bill Clinton was governor and Texas when Bush was governor) during the 1980s and ’90s. It gives local school districts money, in exchange for their administering to their students standardized tests of proficiency in reading and math. In theory, the states have to get everybody—including, in particular, minority students, whose scores are registered separately—up to an acceptable level of literacy and numeracy. Schools that repeatedly fail to show steady progress face an escalating series of sanctions, starting with having to pay for outside tutoring for their failing students and culminating in being shut down altogether. No Child Left Behind was the domestic equivalent of the Iraq War resolution: a lot of liberals voted for it and have been publicly backpedaling ever since. The No Child Left Behind equivalent of "Bush misled us about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction!" is "It was never fully funded!" This is true, but it misses the more fundamental issue: Should the federal government force the entire public school population to be tested for reading and math proficiency, or not?

We’ve now forgotten, but Bush used to have a high level of optimism about his ability to reshuffle the deck in American politics and produce a stronger Republican Party. No Child Left Behind represented his abandoning the long-held conservative dream of reducing the footprint of public education, through vouchers and other means, and, instead, accepting that public school is the nearly universal experience of American children. (Its overall market share is not eroding at all.) Bush wanted to position the Republicans as the party that would deliver high-quality, basic-skills-oriented public education, and maneuver the Democrats into either following his lead or opposing him and looking like the party of low standards.

The problem is that No Child Left Behind doesn’t actually have tough standards. In order to get it passed, the Bush administration, at a fateful point in the negotiations, agreed to let each state define for itself what "proficiency" meant. Some states, like Massachusetts and South Carolina, used that freedom to set challenging standards for their students. Others, like Mississippi and Colorado, set the bar very, very low. The temptation to do the latter is obvious: if proficiency is defined way down, then the "adequate yearly progress" that No Child Left Behind demands becomes much easier to demonstrate. The most attractive aspect of No Child Left Behind—the reason that, say, most civil rights groups support it—is the idea its name communicates: that schools are going to have to teach every student to read and to figure, or else. The law just doesn’t deliver on that promise now. In the states with low standards, and the many more with middling ones, students are, in fact, being left behind.

Both presidential candidates have left themselves some room to maneuver on No Child Left Behind, partly just by not talking about it very much. John McCain could conceivably have come all out for vouchers, and abandoned No Child Left Behind as an unwarranted exercise of federal power. He didn’t. Barack Obama could have called for eliminating No Child Left Behind, as Hillary Clinton did (although she voted for it in 2001), for liberal reasons: too much testing and teaching to the test; too little funding and teacher autonomy. He didn’t. It’s safe to assume that no matter who wins the election, No Child Left Behind will not be going away.

But to fix it—really fix it—will require dramatic changes and considerable investment of political capital. Neither candidate has indicated that he has that in mind. There isn’t any good way to ensure that students have basic skills, which they desperately need in order not to be left behind in the twenty-first-century economy, without testing. But to start with tests is to go at the problem backward. What schools need is, first, a national standard of what proficiency in reading and math means; second, a curriculum that gets students to that level; and finally, tests tailored specifically to that curriculum. That way teaching the class and "teaching to the test" are the same thing. And the schools with students farthest from proficiency are going to need a lot of extra resources to get them there.

As it took Richard Nixon to open diplomatic relations with China, it took George W. Bush to make the federal government a real presence in every public school. Now that the government is there, it should use its leverage mainly to create meaningful standards and a national curriculum. Right now it uses its leverage mainly to require tests. To change that, and to fulfill what Congress in 2001 took to be the promise of No Child Left Behind, would be a presidential achievement commensurate with civil rights, Medicare, and Social Security. Let’s hope the next president sees it that way.

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Nicholas Lemann is dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, and chair of the magazine’s board of advisers.

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