There was always something slightly insane about No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the ambitious education law often described as the Bush Administration's signature domestic achievement. For one thing, in the view of many educators, the law's 2014 goal which calls for all public school students in grades 4 through 8 to be achieving on grade level in reading and math is something no educational system anywhere on earth has ever accomplished. Even more unrealistic: every kid (except for 3% with serious handicaps or other issues) is supposed to be achieving on grade level every year, climbing in lockstep up an ever more challenging ladder. This flies in the face of all sorts of research showing that children start off in different places academically and grow at different rates.
Add to the mix the fact that much of the promised funding failed to materialize and many early critics insisted that No Child Left Behind was nothing more than a cynical plan to destroy American faith in public education and open the way to vouchers and school choice.
Now a former official in Bush's Education department is giving at least some support to that notion. Susan Neuman, a professor of education at the University Michigan who served as Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education during George W. Bush's first term, was and still is a fervent believer in the goals of NCLB. And she says the President and then Secretary of Education Rod Paige were too. But there were others in the department, according to Neuman, who saw NCLB as a Trojan horse for the choice agenda a way to expose the failure of public education and "blow it up a bit," she says. "There were a number of people pushing hard for market forces and privatization."
Tensions between NCLB believers and the blow-up-the-schools group were one reason the Bush Department of Education felt like "a pressure cooker," says Neuman, who left the Administration in early 2003. Another reason was political pressure to take the hardest possible line on school accountability in order to avoid looking lax like the Clinton Administration. Thus, when Neuman and others argued that many schools would fail to reach the NCLB goals and needed more flexibility while making improvements, they were ignored. "We had this no-waiver policy," says Neuman. "The feeling was that the prior administration had given waivers willy-nilly."
It was only in Bush's second term that the hard line began to succumb to reality. Margaret Spellings, who replaced Paige as Secretary of Education in 2005, gradually opened the door to a more flexible and realistic approach to school accountability. Instead of demanding lockstep, grade-level achievement, schools in some states could meet the NCLB goals by demonstrating adequate student growth. (In this "growth model" approach, a student who was three years behind in reading and ended the year only one year behind would not be viewed as a failure.) "Going to the growth models is the right way to go," says Neuman. "I wish it had come earlier. It didn't because we were trying to be tough."
Neuman also regrets the Administration's use of humiliation and shame as a lever for school reform. Failure to meet NCLB's inflexible goals meant schools would be publicly labeled as failures. Neuman now sees this as a mistake: "Vilifying teachers and saying we are going to shame them was not the right approach."
The combination of inflexibility and public humiliation for those not meeting federal goals ignited so much frustration among educators that NCLB now appears to be an irreparably damaged brand. "The problems lingered long enough and there's so much anger that it may not be fixable," says Neuman. While the American Federation of Teachers was once on board with the NCLB goals, she notes, the union has turned against it. "Teachers hate NCLB because they feel like they've been picked on."
Is there a way out of the mess? Neuman still supports school accountability and the much-maligned annual tests mandated by the law. But she now believes that the nation has to look beyond the schoolroom, if it wishes to leave no child behind.
Along with 59 other top educators, policymakers and health officials--including three former surgeon generals, she's put her name to a nonpartisan document to be released on Tuesday by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. Titled "A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education," it lays out an expansive vision for leveling the playing field for low-income kids, one that looks toward new policies on child health and support for parents and communities. The document states that much of the achievement gap between rich and poor "is rooted in what occurs outside of formal schooling," and therefore calls on policymakers to "rethink their assumptions" about what it will take to close that gap. Neuman says that money she's seen wasted on current programs, including much of the massive Title 1 spending should be reallocated according to this broader approach. "Pinning all our hopes on schools will never change the odds for kids."