Soundings

Charles Upton Sahm
NCLB Works
President Bush’s maligned No Child Left Behind education act is actually getting results.
Autumn 2005

A clear sign that the federal No Child Left Behind Act is fulfilling its main purpose in shaking up the ossified public-education establishment is how angry educrats are about it. In August, Connecticut joined the growing chorus of states denouncing NCLB as an “unfunded mandate.” Connecticut’s attorney general filed a lawsuit arguing that that rich state couldn’t possibly afford to provide annual tests in basic reading and math skills to kids in the third through eighth grades, as the law requires.

This is silly, since testing costs little. Educational firms sell off-the-shelf tests for as little as $2 per student; an elaborate one, written especially for a state’s curriculum, might cost the princely sum of $30 per kid. A pencil still costs less than a nickel. Connecticut already tests students in grades four, six, and eight and says that’s sufficient. But you only get one chance to educate a child. If a student is falling behind, parents and teachers shouldn’t have to wait two years to find out.

It’s particularly outrageous that Connecticut resists implementing NCLB, since the achievement gap between minority and nonminority students in the state is among the nation’s widest. One of NCLB’s key features is to shine a spotlight on America’s achievement-gap problem by requiring states to break down each school’s results by race, sex, English proficiency, and socioeconomic status. The Bush administration was sending a message to states that it’s no longer okay to get their white, middle-class, suburban kids to pass the proficiency threshold while leaving minority, lower-income kids behind. Thanks to NCLB, states can no longer hide behind average scores or say that the typical student in a school or district excels. Each individual student now counts.

Teachers’ unions and their legislative allies in Connecticut and other states insist that getting lower-income, minority students on the way to proficiency is impossible without heaps of new federal money. But U.S. public schools hardly lack for funds. State, local, and federal spending on K–12 public education has tripled in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1960. The U.S. now spends $500 billion annually on education, more than Russia’s entire gross domestic product—and federal education spending has jumped 40 percent under President Bush. In any case, states can opt out of NCLB simply by forgoing the federal funding tied to the program. NCLB is neither unfunded nor a mandate.

NCLB’s accountability provisions are what irk the educrats most of all. If schools fail to make adequate yearly progress toward proficiency (each state sets its own targets), NCLB requires that parents hear about it, and then get the option to transfer their children to other public schools, or receive a modest stipend to enroll them in after-school tutoring programs, public or private. The provisions seem to be working. The New York Times recently profiled several school districts across the country that, due to NCLB pressures, are scrambling to bring all their students up to speed by identifying and helping the kids who need special support. New math and reading scores, out this summer from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, showed real gains in elementary schools and a narrowing of the racial achievement gap.

New Yorkers, especially, should understand that poor and minority children can meet high standards if asked and spurred to do so. When Mayor Bloomberg announced two years ago his plan to end social promotion in the third and fifth grades, education experts howled. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy (the successor to the Board of Education) even threatened to veto the plan. Bloomberg won final approval for the reform only after he had three of the panel’s appointees dismissed. Nevertheless, the plan may have begun to work: with educators focusing on student achievement—offering summer-school programs, after-school tutoring, and Saturday classes—third and fifth graders posted gains on city math and reading tests this year.

(A similar story has unfolded at the City University of New York. Back in 1999, the city’s four-year colleges introduced stricter admissions policies and the end of open enrollment. Critics like Democratic mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer predicted that low-income, minority, and immigrant students would never be able to meet the tougher new standards. What happened? CUNY is now thriving, turning out Rhodes Scholars, and black and Latino enrollment is way up.)

NCLB isn’t perfect. As Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings admits, such issues as how to test special-ed students and students with limited English proficiency need smoothing out. But NCLB’s key tenets—high standards and expectations, clear measurement and accountability, and consequences for results—must remain, no matter how much educrats complain.

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