NCLB Commission Calls for Further Centralization, Federal Power in Education

Published April 1, 2007

In February, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Commission–co-chaired by former Gov. Roy Barnes (D) of Georgia and former Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) of Wisconsin–released its reform recommendations, weeks before the Congressional committees responsible for overseeing the law’s reauthorization were scheduled to begin holding hearings.

The 230-page report includes more than 70 recommendations for reforming the law to improve its impact on public schools nationwide. Among them are a call to add new effectiveness measures to NCLB’s existing Highly Qualified Teacher provision, adding new certification requirements on school principals, and a proposal to create model national student achievement standards, which states could then voluntarily adopt.

Congressional leaders welcomed the report. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) spoke at the unveiling and highlighted his priorities for the looming reauthorization.

“The commission has done impressive work in assessing how the law is working or not working in communities across the nation,” Kennedy explained. “In reauthorizing the Act this spring, our goal is to develop a strong bipartisan bill that builds on the positive aspects of the law, resolves the concerns about its implementation, and encourages reforms that will be effective in helping students succeed.”

Congressional committees began holding reauthorization hearings in March.

Core Principles

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings also offered a statement welcoming the recommendations.

“The commission’s recommendations recognize the solid foundation built by NCLB and reaffirm the law’s core principles–including accountability, high standards, and having all students reading and doing math at grade level by 2014,” Spellings said. “I am encouraged that the commission addressed embedding growth models in the law to measure student achievement over time, the pressing need for highly qualified teachers in every classroom, and more significant interventions and critical resources for schools that are chronically underperforming.”

Spellings noted similarities between the commission’s recommendations and the Bush administration’s own proposal for NCLB reforms.

Dr. Matthew Ladner, vice president for research at the Goldwater Institute, an Arizona think tank, favored some of the commission’s recommendations while questioning others. Ladner highlighted the proposal to focus on teacher effectiveness as a step in the right direction.

“I think that recommendation–to judge teachers by outputs rather than by qualifications–potentially represents a revolutionary step forward,” Ladner explained. “Our current K-12 system has completely divorced itself from any measurement of merit, and as a consequence, we don’t attract anything close to the number of talented and ambitious people needed into the teaching profession.”

National Standards

But Ladner questioned the commission’s recommendation to create model national student achievement standards.

“National standards have traditionally been DOA for a number of very good reasons,” Ladner explained. “Outside of the obvious federalism concern, national standards presuppose that there is a ‘one true way’ to education, and that the federal government can discover it where others have failed. Both of these assumptions are false.”

Neal McCluskey, an education analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC, was thoroughly critical of the report’s recommendations.

“If we’ve learned anything over the 40-plus years of federal involvement in education,” McCluskey said, “it’s that federal rules and regulations have made schooling worse, not better.

“For one thing,” McCluskey continued, “instead of forcing schools to improve, officials in broken systems have regularly gamed complex rules and regulations in order to hide their failures. What’s more, ever-increasing and inflexible regulations have hobbled schools’ ability to tailor their products to the needs and desires of their unique and changing student populations.

“Were Congress to adopt the commission’s recommendations, none of this would change,” McCluskey predicted. “Most of the recommendations focus on compliance with regulations to a greater extent than even NCLB, while totally ignoring the one thing that could truly change the educational equation: Letting parents take their children and tax dollars out of schools they dislike and put them into schools that meet their demands, resulting in accountability that is, finally, both effective and efficient.”

Establishment Power

Like Ladner, McCluskey disagreed with the commission’s proposal for model national standards.

“National standards would not relieve our educational woes. As the experiences of most states and past federal flirtations with standards have shown, government-imposed standards almost always end up being weak, politicized standards. Why? Because the teachers unions, administrators associations, and other interest groups whose members earn their livings from public schooling, and who would be held to high standards, have all the power, while parents have none,” McCluskey explained.

“Parents simply have no lobbying force even roughly equivalent to the one possessed by the people they want held accountable, so the standards they get are almost meaningless,” McCluskey said.

Dan Lips ([email protected]) is an education analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.

For more information …

“Beyond NCLB: Fulfilling the Promise to Our Nation’s Children,” The Commission on No Child Left Behind, published in February 2007, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to and search for document #20768.