Choice and Keeping Standards High Key to NCLB

Published September 29, 2007

For those who believe in limited government, could there be a worse nightmare than No Child Left Behind, the federal government’s 5 1/2 -year-old venture in engineered school reform? Alas, there could be. Currently, it is lurking in Washington in the “discussion draft” of a reauthorized NCLB that House Education Committee leaders have floated.

Heritage Foundation analysts have said the 1,036-page draft looks more like an agenda for a National School Board than a piece of legislation. It would put the feds in the thick of standards-setting while steering state and local schools to forms of accountability that would tell parents much less about how well their schools are teaching the basics.

While the original NCLB -the successor to Goals 2000 and the latest version of the 42-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act – certainly increased the federal presence in K-12 schooling, it did respect the principle of federalism in significant ways.

Most notably, while requiring states to test reading and math skills every year in grades three to eight, it permitted them to set their own standards and to adopt their own tests. However, that leeway mightily tempts state educrats to finagle their testing so that scores make the dreaded Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks called for by the act. Fortunately, the independently administered National Assessment of Educational Progress serves as a crosscheck.

When the well-respected NAEP releases state-level data (as it did last week) showing that fourth- and eighth-graders are not reading or doing math nearly as well as certain states claim, then that is the time for investigative reporters, bloggers and other watchdogs to sound the dumbing-down alerts.

Ideally, public opinion eventually will shame the finaglers into raising the bar. That beats Congress writing national standards and a national test sure to be politically influenced. Unfortunately, congressional micromanagement is exactly what the draft touted by House Education Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) entails. Instead of proceeding with state-level reading and math testing, the new NCLB would embrace the “multiple measures” of assessment advocated by the powerful teachers union, the National Education Association, which sternly opposes standardized testing.

The draft would throw about everything but the classroom chalk into the assessment pot. By way of “proving” Adequate Yearly Progress, states would be touting not just reading and math scores but such variables as graduation rates, dropout rates, college enrollment rates, completion of college-prep classes and tests in a wide array of courses.

Most perversely, the new act would de-emphasize teaching English to non-English-speaking children and instead have states show progress by submitting portfolios of the students’ assorted projects or testing them in their native languages. Essentially, that would restore the failed ideology of bilingual education, which delayed the teaching of English indefinitely in order to encourage ethnic separatism.

For those who believe in limited government and individual liberty, is the only practical choice to oppose the bulked-up NCLB and settle for the status quo? No. NCLB reform should focus on giving parents greater power to move their children from low-performing schools to good ones. The compromises between President Bush and Democratic leaders that created the act in 2001 resulted in the first use of parental choice in federally aided school reform. Unfortunately, the law limited choice to public schools intradistrict, and that option has been little advertised, lightly enforced and hardly used.

The new NCLB should continue to respect federalism, but it ought to give bonus Adequate Yearly Progress points to states that remove caps on charter schools, adopt open enrollment statewide or award need-based scholarships for private schooling. School reform should empower consumers, not bureaucrats.

Robert Holland ( [email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.