Another day, another wasteful federal dollar spent. This time the culprit is No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the massive federal education program passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support in Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush in January 2002. NCLB was intended to improve education standards in America's dismal public schools. It should have been named No Bureaucracy Left Behind instead.
I opposed NCLB from the beginning. Why? Because education is a local concern. There is simply no way that all public schools from New York City to Alaska have the same problems that require a one-size-fits-all solution. Our public schools are in desperate need of reform. Nobody would argue with that except the teachers unions, which have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. But throwing money at schools and requiring national testing is like cutting off a limb when the whole tree is rotten and should be cut down. Money and testing will not solve the root problems of our public education system, which in many cases are too pernicious to be handled by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.
In the years since its enactment, NCLB has done little more than add another layer of bureaucracy to education. Has it made successful progress towards assuring that every American child can read and do math at grade level by 2014 and that all teachers are "highly qualified?" The results are not encouraging.
The report from the Department of Education (DOE) states that NCLB is fulfilling its promises because "all 50 states and D.C. assess students in grades 3-8 and once in high school in reading / language arts and mathematics; the percentage of classes taught by a highly qualified teacher has risen to over 90 percent; nearly 450,000 eligible students have received free supplemental educational services (tutoring) or public school choice." This tells us very little about actual student achievement. DOE says student reading and math scores are improving but not that every child in America can read and write at grade level yet. State test scores may be improving but what has happened is that schools are teaching to the test and have lowered the standards for "proficiency" because so much of their funding relies upon good scores. Whether that means students are learning skills they will retain and use for life is a different matter altogether.
It is difficult to isolate NCLB's actual effect on achievement but several studies have tried. The National Assessment of Educational Progress report, Long-Term Trends, states that 4th- and 8th-grade math scores and 4th-grade reading scores improved between 1999 and 2004 while 8th-grade reading did not change. Since NCLB was enacted in 2002 and not fully implemented for at least another year or two, it is difficult to attribute improvement begun before the law and continuing after it to the law itself.
Similarly, as noted in the CATO Institute's End It, Don't Mend It: What To Do With No Child Left Behind report, while both 4th- and 8th-grade math scores rose between 2003 and 2005 (the only period during which score changes could be attributed to NCLB), the rate of improvement actually slowed from that achieved between 2000 and 2003, a period before NCLB was enacted and implemented in schools. "In reading," CATO's report notes, "the results were worse, with the period covered by NCLB seeing a score decline for 8th graders and stagnation for 4th graders, following improvement between 2000 and 2002."
Nor has NCLB helped states close the racial and socio-economic achievement gap. Part of the reason for this is that states have redefined "proficient" to accommodate already low scores and have excluded many minorities from testing groups.
Another problem with the law, and there are many, is that it has marginalized other important subjects like history, geography, civics and science. The effect upon history has been especially pernicious, as many schools have reduced classroom instruction time by up to 75% in order to teach more reading and math, the only two subjects NCLB tests.
NCLB is up for re-authorization this year and the fight over funding and policy changes has been heating up for several months. President Bush has spoken in favor of re-authorization multiple times in the last several months. His only suggestion to improve NCLB is to make minor modifications for "local flexibility." Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, are clamoring for more funding for the program. Neither is a viable solution for fixing the nation's public education troubles.
In a perfect world, of course, the entire DOE bureaucracy would be abolished. Since I do not foresee that happening in the near future, the next best thing would be to phase out NCLB, effective immediately, and return control of the public schools to local school districts and states. While some of these have failed students miserably, at least they are aware of specific problems in the community and could, with some effort, improve education more effectively than the Federal Government.