Today, by executive order President Obama waived the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act for 10 states, prompting writers at the Huffington Post to speculate “it could be the beginning of the end for No Child Left Behind.” One of the questions we might want to ask is: why should it be within the power of the president to say what requirements will or will not bind school districts around the nation? Beyond the issue of the limits of presidential authority, though, lies the problem of the legislation itself, an effort to use the power of the federal government to mandate educational performance and egalitarian educational outcomes.
Almost immediately after entering the Presidency in January 2001, President George W. Bush announced an educational reform program intended to “express my deep belief in our public schools and their mission to build the mind and character of every child, from every background, in every part of America.” The No Child Left Behind bill reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, setting the educational program of the twenty-first century on the foundation laid in the era of the Great Society.
No Child Left Behind prescribed the annual administration of standardized tests to children in grades 3 through 8 and required that all states develop progress objectives to ensure that all groups of students would reach proficiency (which is another way of saying at or above average) by 2014. The test results and the progress objectives were to be broken down by classifications of poverty status, racial and ethnic groups, disability status, and English proficiency. All groups were to advance at the same rates on essentially the same measures of achievement.
Following in the direction set by the initial Great Society bill, the administration of President Bush took keen interest in closing the achievement gap through testing. Indeed, closing the racial and ethnic (Latino) achievement gap, and achieving universal equality among categories, seemed to be a primary focus of No Child Left Behind. While the Bush administration opposed affirmative action in education, it made racial and ethnic categories a key part of its strategy for using testing and corrective measures in schools to eliminate group variations in outcomes.
One of NCLB’s key concerns, then, was with the idea of equity on a single scale, with school, district, state and federal efforts concentrated on the historically disadvantaged or educationally weakest groups. There were penalties for any school that failed to meet goals for any group, including special education students and students who did not speak English (on English administered tests). Students could transfer out of schools that had failed to meet standards for any group. In addition, school districts had to use federal Title I funds to pay for extra tutoring or other educational services for students in schools that consistently failed to meet overall goals or goals for specific groups. The idea that uniformly high educational achievement could be distributed by schools to all children had left schools with the responsibility, and the blame, for any shortcomings.
Critics who recognized the redistributive basis of NCLB were disturbed by the program’s concentration on what were presumed to be the weakest performing subgroups. Schools could be penalized if any groups failed to meet preset goals. For example, NCLB mandated that all students must achieve a given state’s “proficient” level in “challenging” academic standards by 2014. As already noted, “All” includes everyone from students with severe learning disabilities to Limited English Proficient (LEP) students. However, LEP students are those who by definition score low on English tests. As noted in a report by Professor Christine Rossell in 2005, “if you define a group by their low test scores, that group must have low test scores or someone has made a mistake,” Thus, it is logically impossible to ever close the achievement gap between LEP students and those fluent in English, because as soon as a LEP student becomes proficient in English, they are reclassified as fluent English students. Trying to close this gap is logically on par with lifting every student to above average academic achievement.
The No Child Left Behind legislation did recognize the role that the society outside of schools, especially family, plays in the educational success of children. However, rather than acknowledge that the family domain marked a major limitation in the effectiveness of any public schooling efforts to boost academic achievement, the education bill glossed over this inconvenient truth by attempting to re-shape families. Believing that public schools can artificially manufacture the critical family involvement ingredient in student school success, the bill mandates in Section 1118 that in order to receive federal funding under the Act, local education agencies shall implement:
“programs, activities, and procedures for the involvement of parents in programs assisted under this part consistent with this section. Such programs, activities, and procedures shall be planned and implemented with meaningful consultation with parents of participating children.”
The “meaningful consultation” with parents did not refer to discussions with parents of educationally successful children, but to educational authorities trying to involve the parents of children failing in school. The implication of this provision of NCLB was that government could somehow recreate the family involvement that leads to higher academic outcomes, and should intervene to do so. This assumed governmental authority over the families of the disadvantaged, and also assumed the power of educational planners to re-shape families and communities at will.
Meanwhile, the families of relatively advantaged children, largely avoiding the direction of planners, managed to continue to give their own children a true head start. The most dramatic example of this could be found among those outside of the school system altogether. A major policy analysis of 11,930 homeschooling families compared the academic achievement of these families’ children with students in private and public schools.. In this study, homeshoolers scored significantly higher on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) than students in private or public schools. Moreover, the greater the number of years of homeschooling (which is to say the fewer the years of formal schooling), the higher the average score of the home schooled. As for the academic credentials of the parent educators, there was no relationship between a parent having a state-issued teaching certificate and the academic performance of the homeschooled child. Home schoolers also did significantly better on the ACT than the non-home schooled.