Cautionary Tale: Authors Recount NCLB's Tortured History

By Glazer, Nathan | Education Next, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Cautionary Tale: Authors Recount NCLB's Tortured History


Glazer, Nathan, Education Next


Schoolhouse of Cards: An Inside Story of No Child Left Behind and Why America Needs a Real Education Revolution

By Eugene Hickok

Rowman & Littlefield, 2010, $34.95; 183 pages.

Collision Course: Federal Education Policy Meets State and Local Realities

By Paul Manna

CQ Press, 2010, $32.95; 206 pages.

As reviewed by Nathan Glazer

Whatever Possessed the President? was the unlikely title of Robert C. Wood's memoir of urban policy during the 1960s. The same thought springs to mind in reading these two books on the shaping and progress of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, the great expansion of federal education policy effected during George W. Bush's first year in office. One wonders not only what he and his advisers could have been thinking, but what the lawmakers who implemented NCLB could have been thinking. Its aims were unbelievably ambitious--every child to be proficient in reading, mathematics, and science for the appropriate grade level by 2014; an array of required tests in every state for grades 3 through 8 and in high school; the elimination of persistent achievement gaps for minorities, those with limited English, children from low-income families, and perhaps even students with disabilities; graduated requirements to be imposed on schools and school districts that did not make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) toward these goals; and much else.

Eugene Hickok reminds us that education was a major theme in the campaign of the Republican candidate for president in 2000, despite Republican skepticism about any major federal role in education. Elimination of the Department of Education had been a frequent note in the party's rhetoric for decades. But under Governor Bush, Texas education had made great progress, according to the state's own tests, although this achievement was disputed during the campaign. Bush cited this improvement as one of his major accomplishments, and he hoped to take the measures that had led to it national. Bush further had managed all this while Democrats controlled the Texas legislature. Indeed, NCLB, formally an expansion of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, moved through Congress in 2001 with surprising bipartisan support. It radically implemented at the federal level a call for "accountability" in education, which had already led to substantial changes in many states.

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Hickok, who served as undersecretary of education during the first George W. Bush administration, gives a detailed account of how the legislation and the key decisions were shaped. The president's White House advisers played the dominant role; the secretary of education, Roderick Paige, former superintendent of the Houston schools, is not much in evidence, and neither is Hickok himself, despite his high office. He informs us that it was decided early on that accountability should be imposed on the individual school. To make the teachers accountable would not only have involved a statistical burden that states were not prepared to accept, but would have led to strong union resistance, which would have influenced the Democrats.

The administrative burdens at the federal and state levels, it can be imagined, were enormous. AYP was to be measured not only at the school level but for defined subgroups in each school. As a consequence for failure to make AYP, schools and school districts were required to undertake measures for improvement: To begin with, students would be allowed to move to any other school in the district or would get supplementary tutoring, and beyond that, in further years in failure, "corrective action" and "restructuring" would be required, by schools and school districts.

All this was spelled out in mind-boggling detail in the legislation: One can find a helpful summary in Collision Course. …

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