Academic journal article Education Next

Confessions of a "No Child Left Behind" Supporter: An Interview with Sandy Kress

Academic journal article Education Next

Confessions of a "No Child Left Behind" Supporter: An Interview with Sandy Kress

Article excerpt

With the due date for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) right around the corner, Education Next thought it apt to probe the lessons learned in the five years since the act's passage. After all, as the cliche goes, if we don't learn from history we are bound to repeat its mistakes. In that spirit, this past summer we conducted an e-mail interview with Sandy Kress, a lawyer and former school board member who, as a domestic policy advisor in the White House, served as President Bush's chief negotiator during the original NCLB debate. We asked him about the genesis of key aspects of the federal law, whether its crafters foresaw any of its major glitches, and what he thinks of NCLB's prospects going forward.

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EdNext: How were the basic contours of the NCLB accountability system arrived at? Did the drafters of the law truly believe that getting 100 percent of students to proficiency by 2014 was realistic?

Sandy Kress: The accountability provisions were built on the foundation of the 1994 Improving America's Schools Act. The goal was to build muscle where there was little or none, drawing on ideas in place in states like Texas. Education Trust was deeply involved, as were key members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. Reformers had come up with choice ideas and notions of flexibility in return for improvements in performance. There was healthy discussion on both sides.

As to the 2014 goal, the thinking was simple: if qualified teachers are teaching to standards set by the adults in a state, why shouldn't all (cognitively able) students perform accordingly to those standards by 2014? The bar was not set too high. Indeed, some would argue it was set too low or that states have the flexibility to set it too low. Look at current math and reading standards in the states. Is it unreasonable to expect all students starting in kindergarten to get there by graduation? I don't think so. I realize it doesn't happen in enough places. But is that due to the viability of doing it? Or is it due to a lack of will, reasonably sound policy, effective use of resources, or all of these factors?

EdNext: You ask, "Is it unreasonable to expect all students starting in kindergarten to get [to proficiency] by graduation?" But that's not what NCLB requires. By 2014 it requires all students in every grade level to get to proficiency in every year--even 3rd graders who are born into poverty, or high-school students who moved to the United States two years prior. Should our focus be getting all students to proficiency by the time they graduate high school rather than by the end of each grade or by 2014?

SK: I believe strongly that virtually all youngsters ought to be performing at grade level each year. There are a small number of students, such as the severely cognitively disabled, who will not perform at such a level, and the law should recognize these challenges. But for the cognitively able who start school in our country (the vast majority of our students), there is no reason they can't all be at grade level each year. There will be little improvement in getting students to the goal of proficiency by graduation if we don't dramatically improve our ability to bring students to grade-level performance each year.

EdNext: Was there much concern about the law creating a "race to the bottom" among the states, or any steps taken to minimize that risk? Were national standards ever considered?

SK: The federal government wasn't even close to ready (and still isn't) to set standards for the states. So, little could be done to prevent states "racing to the bottom" with their standards, if they chose to do so. We did think about it. Our conclusion was that we needed to maintain expectations for low-income youngsters, with respect to proficiency, that are the same as those for middle- and upper-income youngsters. That was considered the role and mission of the federal government. …

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