THE STATES have always been central to the American public school systems, and they have been sharply expanding their authority over local school districts since the 1980s. The states adopted education reforms that increased course requirements (especially in science and math), mandated uniform testing, and put in place higher teaching standards. A number of states also experimented with takeovers of schools and districts that were falling behind.
Then in 2002 along came the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which constituted a huge expansion of federal authority over the schools. However, NCLB relies on state education agencies to carry out its mandates to produce massive improvement in educational outcomes for all groups of students. NCLB makes the states responsible for defining student proficiency, and if schools or districts fall behind the increasingly demanding standards, as a great many have done, the law directs the states to take action to improve outcomes and grants them sweeping powers over local schools and districts.
All states are now required to accomplish goals that none have ever met, and they have been given very little money to do so. If the law is to be extended, it is vital that Congress define a role for states that is feasible and give them reasonable resources and sufficient discretion to carry it out. We do not say this because we oppose the exercise of federal power. Federal action against discrimination, for example, has been essential. But we believe NCLB can work to produce more equal and effective schooling only if it makes sense to educators and provides the necessary resources. If Congress were to require the states to end all pollution within a decade, regardless of huge technological and economic barriers, and sought to drive that change only by imposing sanctions with very few additional resources, the plan would ultimately mean very little and would probably breed considerable cynicism.
NCLB was built on the assumption that state education agencies have the capacity to implement all of the requirements called for in the law. It also assumes that states have the capacity to provide the support and technical assistance necessary to help low-performing schools and districts bring all students to the proficient level on state tests. Supporters of the law argued that federal policy would leverage the way states allocate resources and would create the professional and political incentives for states to marshal the resources necessary to respond to the accountability directives. The law itself provided only modest resources and paid scant attention to how the state role would need to change if such ambitious goals were to be achieved.
Our research in six states shows that state administrators took the law very seriously and largely succeeded in implementing its demanding data-collection and testing requirements. (1) But when confronted with the much more difficult goals of ensuring large-scale educational change and providing support to low-performing schools, the states were much less adept, their history of success in such efforts was limited, and the new resources available were small.
Under NCLB, the states were required to develop testing systems that few liked; to collect and publish sensitive racial and ethnic data; to brand schools as failures on the basis of congressional, not state, criteria; to demand levels, timing, and uniformity of educational progress that were unprecedented; to force dramatic educational change; and to implement drastic sanctions and interventions against many schools and districts. For relatively small agencies that generally work on distributing resources, collecting data, and ensuring compliance with laws much less coercive than NCLB--and usually in a climate of professional collaboration--these were drastic changes.
If the modest federal share of school spending could actually leverage such vast reforms, it would represent a fundamental change in the development of the nation's most visible and important public institutions. …