Given all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth, one would think that NCLB was a crushing burden on the school system.
In actuality NCLB demands very little. It only requires that states wishing to receive Title I funds have to establish goals for student success, select tests for measuring progress towards those goals, and report results from those tests broken out by subgroups.
The sanctions for failing to make progress toward those goals are almost non-existent. Schools failing to make progress have to offer tutoring or allow students to transfer to better-performing public schools in the same district (if one can be found). But, as we have previously discussed on this blog and in this article, there is widespread non-compliance with even these minimal sanctions. Too often schools fail to inform parents properly of their options under NCLB or direct students into their own tutoring programs, resulting in very few students taking any resources out of their local school, let alone district. Without placing school funds in jeopardy, the only possible sanction is public embarrassment. And that plus $4 will get you a latte at Starbucks.
I do not believe that a single tenured teacher out of the more than 3 million teachers currently working in public schools has been fired, experienced a pay-cut, or otherwise been meaningfully sanctioned because of NCLB. I do not believe that a single student out of the 50 million enrolled in public schools has been held back a grade, been denied a diploma, or otherwise been meaningfully sanctioned as a result of NCLB. (Some states have retention and graduation requirements as part of their state accountability systems, but those policies are not required for NCLB.) Yes, chronically failing schools might eventually face “restructuring” but that is likely to be yet more bark and no bite. Next they’ll be put on double secret probation.
So what supports complaints about “pressure cooker NCLB testing,” or “NCLB-post traumatic stress disorder,” or other “NCLB outrages”? If NCLB has almost no real consequences for teachers or students, what is all of the fuss about? The overwrought reaction seems to have more to do with a political campaign over the future direction of education policy than the actual effects of the current policy.
The most important future policy that the higher volume of squealing is meant to influence is increasing education spending. A center-piece of the complaints about NCLB is that it is an unfunded mandate. Let’s leave aside the fact that federal spending on education has increased 41% since passage of NCLB. And let’s leave aside that NCLB is not actually a mandate, since states do not have to comply with NCLB if they do not want Title I funds (which have increased 59% since 2001).
Besides neither being unfunded nor a mandate, the argument that NCLB is an unfunded mandate is especially odd because it makes one wonder what all of the funding that schools received before NCLB was for. It’s as if the unfunded mandate crowd is saying: “The $10,000 per pupil we already get just pays for warehousing. If you actually want us to educate kids, that’ll cost ya extra.” Remember, that NCLB just asks states to establish and meet their own goals. Didn’t they have goals before NCLB?
While NCLB demands much less than the overwrought rhetoric about it suggests, it does not demand nothing. Most importantly, NCLB entrenched the idea that we should take regular measures of student achievement and report the results, including results for subgroups. Even this is a smaller thing that it may seem at first glance since 37 states had already adopted state testing and accountability systems before passage of NCLB. But NCLB brought the laggard states on-board to this growing national consensus that we ought to have some systematic measures of how our students are doing. It also made reversal of this growing testing and accountability culture more difficult by placing it in federal as well as state law.
Greg Forster has already made the case for why this shift under NCLB has been important, so I will not repeat it here. I would just emphasize that the controversy over NCLB is not really about what NCLB does, but about the broader policy shift that it represents and the extra funding that folks hope they may get as they acquiesce to that policy shift.