Spotlight Exclusives

A Critical Moment: Fixing No Child Left Behind

Frederick M. Hess, American Enterprise Institute Frederick M. Hess, American Enterprise Institute, posted on

It’s getting down to crunch time for efforts to fix the No Child Left Behind Act, the major federal law governing K-12 education. This summer, the House and Senate passed bills that would dramatically scale back federal involvement and correct many of the problems that have become clear with time.

Last week, the conference committee charged with merging the House and Senate bills reached a compromise agreement. The result, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is likely to get an up-or-down vote in each chamber shortly after Thanksgiving. As readers judge the merits of the final deal, it’s important to keep in mind a clear notion of what an appropriate and effective federal role entails.

First off, a bit of history is useful. In 1965, as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Johnson hoped that ESEA would boost the achievement of disadvantaged students, helping to break the cycle of poverty. ESEA failed to deliver on that promise. No one knew whether federal money was doing any good, even as rules, regulations, and bureaucracy proliferated. Meanwhile, schools found it all too easy to overlook or ignore disadvantaged students.

In 2001, President George W. Bush and key congressional Democrats wanted to ensure that federal funds were being used effectively and that vulnerable children would no longer be overlooked.

Unfortunately, the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that passed was a well-intentioned mash-up. Remarkably intrusive, it was especially prescriptive about how states would measure school performance and what states needed to do to schools deemed “in need of improvement.” Absurdly, NCLB required that 100 percent of the nation’s children be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014, with mandated consequences for schools that missed the bar.

Ultimately, NCLB allowed the Obama administration to dictate K-12 policy via quid pro quo waivers granted to states desperate to escape NCLB’s 100-percent mandate. The Secretary of Education released dozens of states from NCLB’s fantasy targets, but only if they promised to pursue Obama priorities.

Clearly a change is in order. The federal government can’t fix schools (and it shouldn’t try), but it does have a supporting role to play by implementing smart rules that promote transparency and innovation.  Given that, here are the things that a sensible new approach will do:

Embrace transparency: For all its flaws, NCLB does have one invaluable legacy. By requiring states to test in the same subjects and grades, Congress created a framework for the public to see how schools are doing. Setting forth this kind of framework is entirely consistent with Congress’s responsibilities under the “weights and measures” provision of the Constitution. Moreover, data reporting and analysis pose minimal implementation headaches, do not involve the feds in dictating practice or monitoring compliance, and equip the public to set priorities and make decisions. Encouragingly, as part of the conference agreement, Washington will continue to require annual testing and reporting in reading and math, with results broken out by NCLB-denoted subgroups.

End federal efforts to dictate school improvement: Washington should end NCLB’s policy of trying to determine which schools are not making “adequate yearly progress” and mandating federal interventions. States may do an imperfect job of flagging troubled schools, but it’s now clear that Washington is no better Mayors, superintendents, principals, and CEOs set targets and then are held responsible for meeting them. This encourages them to set targets that are realistic and to take ownership for the consequences. When Congress or the Secretary of Education decide to “hold states accountable,” it’s just politicians and bureaucrats mouthing off. That’s how we end up with ridiculous, counterproductive targets. The conference agreement does not go quite as far as would be ideal on this count, but it takes dramatic measures in restoring discretion to the states.

Stop federal involvement in the Common Core: Through Race to the Top and ESEA waivers, Secretary of Education Duncan has worked assiduously to encourage states to adopt the Common Core and its associated tests. This has lent the Common Core the imprimatur of a quasi-federal initiative and made it far more divisive than it needed to be. Reauthorization of ESEA should take the Common Core off of the federal table, as the compromise agreement does.

Make it easier for states to expand school choice: As states increasingly adopt choice-based models, ranging from Nevada’s Education Savings Accounts to Louisiana’s “course choice” programs, Congress should adapt funding requirements to ensure that federal funds serve the intended beneficiaries without tying states’ hands. One sensible move is to embrace full Title I portability, so that states can use federal funds to help low-income students attend the district, charter, or private school of their choice. The compromise agreement includes pilots to test this idea.

Get the feds out of the teacher business: NCLB’s Highly Qualified Teacher provision was a well-intentioned mistake. There’s no constructive way for federal lawmakers to issue guidelines for judging whether three-and-a-half-million teachers are good at their jobs. The inevitable result is more rules, paperwork, bureaucracy, and a raft of not-ready-for-primetime teacher evaluation systems. Congress doesn’t even try to tell its own employees in the military or the Justice Department how to determine who is a qualified soldier or public attorney; it leaves that judgment to the professionals. The same philosophy should apply when it comes to educators who don’t even work for the federal government, and the conference agreement puts that decision back into the hands of states and local government.

When scored against these sensible goals, the new ESSA posts high marks. The overhaul of NCLB is poised to deliver a bill that marks a dramatic improvement on the status quo and helps to get the federal role right when it comes to America’s schools.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Education Week’s “Rick Hess Straight Up” blog. His books include Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit: Lessons from a Half-Century of Federal Efforts to Improve America’s Schools. Follow him on twitter at @rickhess99.

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