Sunday, March 19, 2006

The hidden purpose of NCLB

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) represents the largest incursion of federal policy (and money) into education in the United States since Sputnik. The Act requires every state in the union to develop standardized measures of whether individual schools (and certain subpopulations with those schools) are making "adequate yearly progress" (AYP). In addition, the Act requires states to spend money in certain specified ways to "help" those schools and subpopulations that are not meeting AYP targets and, after five years, to radically restructure the schools by either putting them under state control, hiring an all-new staff, or shutting the schools down completely.

The US Department of Education provides a comprehensive web site that describes the requirements, philosophy, and desired outcomes of NCLB. The site is not "shy" or uncertain about what NCLB is supposed to do. Citing the bipartisan support with which the Act was passed, the official web site lists NCLB's many explicit purposes:
  • Holds schools accountable for the academic achievement of all subgroups

  • Closes the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and other students

  • Allows parents of students at schools in need of improvement or "persistently dangerous schools" to demand that their school district transport their children to a nearby public school or spent money on supplemental services (tutoring)

  • Ensures that taxpayer money is used for programs that "work"

  • Combines most federal dollars into block grants which are supposed to ensure local flexibility in how the money is spent

  • Allows faith-based organizations to receive federal money to provide supplemental educational services to public school students

  • Requires all teachers in core subjects to be "highly qualified" by the end of the current school year; essentially, requiring them to have state certification.

  • Funds professional development for teachers "so long as the activities are grounded in scientifically based research."

  • Supports the planning, development, and initial implementation of charter schools.

According to the web site, NCLB has already had some positive effects, including:
  • "The achievement gaps in reading and math between white and African American 9-year-olds are at all-time lows."

  • "No Child Left Behind is improving education in all states." (The site provides a one-page summary of how "NCLB is making a difference in..." for each of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Each one-pager includes mention of any increases in test scores between 2002 and 2005 along with some school/district profiles and quotes from local newspapers.)

  • "The long-term Nation's Report Card (NAEP) results, released in July 2005, showed elementary school student achievement in reading and math at all-time highs and the achievement gap closing."

  • "Students in select urban school districts improving faster than their peers nationwide over the last two years." (But see this NPR report for a completely different take on the same data.)

The official web site makes it clear that NCLB "Benefits Children, Empowers Parents, Supports Teachers and Strengthens Schools"; in sum, "No Child Left Behind Is Working."

Both President Bush and Senator Edward Kennedy (NCLB's chief Democratic sponsor in the Senate) must be pleased with these results. However, all is not happy in the land of bipartisanship. Kennedy has been lamenting for the past few years that the Act has never been fully funded, and that many of the requirements placed on states and school districts are "unfunded mandates." Even conservatives are upset that the Act has been completely ineffective at opening up the prospects of vouchers for private school attendance (one of Bush's original campaign promises), has burdened the states with huge federal "accountability" requirements and bloated the federal department of education while providing little funding, and has been watered down over the years by a department of education more interested in avoiding revolts from the states than in enforcing the Act's provisions.

The Challenge: Ineffective teaching practices and unproven education theories are among the chief reasons children fall behind and teachers get frustrated.

The Solution: Demand that instructional practices be evidence-based, and direct funding so only the best ideas with proven results are introduced into the classroom.

Even though NCLB has been described as being about educational practices, most of the public debate about the Act has avoided questions of "ineffective teaching practices and unproven educational theories" completely. Rather, the debate focuses on whether states should have flexibility in meeting the Act's mandates (especially its Lake Woebegonesque goal of having 100% of all students meeting norms--that is, at or above the 50th percentile as defined by student performance soon after the Act was signed--by 2014), and arguments about whether federal funding is adequate. Certainly NCLB has increased federal funding for education. The real question is whether the activities that it is funding are going to improve the quality of the worst schools.

This, of course, gets us to the real-world of how NCLB affects education across the country. Many schools (especially those with specialized magnet programs or those in affluent communities) already meet NCLB's long-term goal of having 100% of their students above the 50th percentile. (Some of these schools are struggling with how to meet the requirements for certain subpopulations such as special needs students.) The schools primarily affected by the Act are those with substantial populations of lower-income students. The Brookings Institution describes this well:

NCLB seems to have more to do with the composition of its student body than the progress its students were making in the classroom. Schools not making adequate yearly progress in the law's second year had, on average, 40 percent more poor students and a substantially greater share of minorities.

The problem is that the NCLB methodology for measuring school performance does not pay enough attention to the vast differences in students' academic preparation when they arrive at school – differences that have clear consequences for their subsequent test scores. Schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students can be deemed failing for not meeting statewide proficiency targets even if their students are making dramatic progress. Conversely, schools in affluent communities may appear to be effective despite the fact that their students are learning less than the state's average student from one year to the next. (Brookings Institution policy brief)

Because NCLB measures AYP not in terms of a students' actual gains from year to year, but in terms of the percentage of students meeting state averages, the Act affects lower-performing schools much more than it affects higher-performing schools. Indeed, schools that already have the vast majority of their students performing above state averages are pretty much unaffected by NCLB except, again, in the case of some subpopulations. Those schools can go on doing pretty much what they have been doing (whether or not their teaching practices are "ineffective" and their educational theories "unproven"). But lower-performing schools are under the gun to change their teaching practices (and the theories behind them) to focus singlemindedly on helping more of their students to score well on standardized tests of reading and math performance.

The real-world effect of NCLB in those schools is that educational efforts (including those that occur after school) that address other, subsidiary goals (such as increased graduation rates, increased attendance, moral development, the arts, health and physical education, science, social studies--let alone such nebulous goals as independent inquiry, greater self-understanding, democratic citizenship, or global awareness) are marginalized if not completely ignored. (In Illinois, for example, the state found itself with insufficient funds for non-NCLB-mandated activities and so discontinued most testing that isn't connected to reading and math.)

UPDATE 3/27/06: See New York Times of March 26: "Schools Cut Back Subjects to Push Reading and Math," which includes this sentence: "The changes appear to principally affect schools and students who test below grade level."

image by david mclimans for
Which helps us to focus on what may be the most important hidden purpose of NCLB: to reinforce the tendency of lower-income schools (well documented in the work of Jean Anyon and others) to focus on lower-order skills development (the kind of thing that can be measured in multiple-choice tests) through mechanical, rote drill and practice that limits students' individuality and choice. While higher-income schools continue to emphasize creative work, independence, and the application of ideas and concepts (the kinds of skills required for success in professional and intellectual jobs), the lower-income schools are forced by NCLB to concentrate on the kinds of skills and behaviors that are valued primarily in low-end, low-skill occupations. Thus, NCLB can be seen as chiefly aimed not at "leaving no child behind," but at further reinforcing the gap in opportunities between poor and wealthy Americans. This mirrors, of course, the huge increase in the income gap between the poor and the rich, aided in no small measure by President Bush's tax policies.

But even more pernicious is the way that NCLB forces lower-income schools to ignore--to the point in many schools of devoting ZERO instructional time to--helping lower-income students learn about this income gap and about its causes in tax policy, globalization, and corporatization. NCLB leaves low-performing schools (which are, as we've seen, low income schools) ZERO room for teaching low-income students about the causes of economic and political repression. Rather than reading speeches by Martin Luther King or Che Guevara, lower-income students are reciting the apolitical drivel found in the workbooks and "leveled readers" of direct instruction and "scientifically-based" reading programs, while the students in higher-income schools (that is, the kids who are unlikely to resent what they might learn about economic inequality) pursue meaning-based learning (that is, learning that is focused on ideas and concepts, rather than basic skills). Meaning-based learning, it turns out, and its progressive approach to teaching and learning, is the "unproven educational theory" that NCLB is most against, at least when such an approach is used with low income students. This is true, despite lots of evidence (not all of it based on double-blind control-group research) that meaning-based teaching and learning are the best practices for lower-income schools. (See Knapp 1995, summarized here.)

In short, NCLB, by forcing lower-performing schools to focus on "basic skills," is reinforcing the huge gap in higher-order thinking skills that already exists between most low income students and most high income students. The initial cause of these thinking gaps has surely more to do with experiences in the home and communities than with race, ethnicity, or political point of view. But the schools, by differentially reinforcing this thinking gap, are unwittingly participating in the oppression of the lower classes, which is likely to increase even further their alienation from society and the ease with which President Bush's corporate friends can continue to manipulate and repress them.

Those of us who see the collateral effects of NCLB are most likely people who have already benefited from an education that has enabled us to look at the big picture and form judgments about whose interests are being served by which policies on a local, national, and international level. That sort of education (learning to think and analyze complex phenomena independently) has historically been denied to lower income populations. NCLB just makes this thinking gap into federal policy.

Unfortunately, most of the victims of this policy don't know enough to complain.


Jim Horn said...

There are many ways to frame the important points you have made, in terms that are central to Foundations.We have been "back to basics" many times, but never so far, so fast, with such steroidal enthusiasm that the ed reform conversation becomes dominated by a Maggie Spellings monologue. "Teach to the test,keep on" is her latest sad quotable.

I will have more to say later, but I do want to say thanks for saying some of what needs to be said. Many academics are so concerned about losing federal contracts these days that they will say nothing that might bring down the wrath of Grover Whitehurst. I think he wants to be known as "Russ" now, not to be confused with the other Grover, who thus far has avoided indictment.

Professor Zero said...

Great post. Rock on.

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KIlroy Was Here said...

Delaware join the class action suit against USDOE because the underfunded NCLB infringes on local taxes to fill the gap in the funding of NCLB to meet the objectives. However, Delaware legislators pass unfunded and underfunded state educational mandates. The pot calling the kettle black on this on.

Anonymous said...

How are we as parents supposed to trust the educational system? When teachers are fixing tests to make their students pass exams due to the “No Child Left Behind” mandate. This is ridiculous. Check out at

Pjbf said...

The art on this page is missing attribution. This illustration is copyrighted by the creator, David McLimans. Did you get permission from him for this use? You should if you have not, and at the very least you should by all fairness credit him and link the image to his website.