Reforming NCLB: What to Keep

  • 01 May, 2009
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The next version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is going to be quite different from “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB). That’s both good since real changes are needed, but it’s a little scary, too, because NCLB represented a remarkable and positive break with past federal education policy.

  A quick pre-2000 history lesson: At the federal level, Republican and Democratic views of education had evolved into an unfortunate stalemate. Republicans usually opposed federal education spending for Constitutional and budgetary reasons. Their argument was that education was the responsibility of the states and that Uncle Sam should keep his cotton-picking fingers off of local schools. That approach often meant that the Republican answer to educational programs was no, but it also meant that they worked hard to protect local control, to ensure that federal educational initiatives didn’t get very specific about curriculum, teacher preparation, or assessment and that there could be nothing like national standards.

  The Democrats, on the other hand, have been very pro-education spending. They Democrats have usually pushed for increased funding for Head Start, Title I, IDEA, and so on.

  Sounds like the donkeys and the elephants’ positions were pretty antithetical. But that really wasn’t the case. The Democrats, despite their support for education dollars, were not particularly committed to trying to improve education. That’s why they weren’t worried about the constitutional problems: Democrats didn’t seek to fix schools as much as to use schools as a reason for moving federal bucks to local communities and to increase educational opportunity (more slots and more stuff) but within the existing universe of education.

  What that meant until 2000 was that the Democrats and Republicans “conspired” to make sure that federal dollars wouldn’t affect educational quality. NCLB was remarkable because it broke that stalemate and increased funding towards improving educational quality. I might not agree with all of the NCLB specifics, but I strongly support the principle.

  Back in the 1940s when the GI bill paid tuitions for soldiers to go to college, the quality of the colleges was not the issue (just the access). In the 1960s, when Head Start was set up, the idea was to get kids from low-income families into preschools and to provide them with meals and health care, and the assumption was that any preschool would be okay. The problem, in 2009, is that increasing access is insufficient. Making sure that more African American boys have the money to go to college is a great idea, except that most will flunk out during freshman year because of their inadequate elementary and high school preparation.

  Change NCLB by all means, but keep trying to use that federal increment to boost quality and effectiveness. Candidate Obama campaigned on increasing educational access. Let’s hope that President Obama changes that emphasis to trying to increase quality, too. Our kids need to read better than they do now; more access alone won’t solve that.

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Reforming NCLB: What to Keep

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