Congress hopes to finish work on the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) before the presidential primary season begins in January 2008, though it is unclear whether that deadline will be met. The six-year-old law was originally passed by Congress with strong bipartisan support, but now faces opposition from both the right and the left. Can the law be saved? The editors of Education Next join in the debate on NCLB's future, assessing the law's shortcomings and prescribing what Congress should do to avert a disaster.
NCLB is driven by education politics
Enacted in 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) began with the resounding promise that every U.S. schoolchild will attain "proficiency" in reading and math by 2014. Noble, yes, but also naive, misleading, and in some respects dysfunctional. While nobody doubts that the number of "proficient" students in America can and should increase dramatically from today's woeful level, no educator believes that universal proficiency in 2014 is attainable. Only politicians promise such things. The inevitable result is weary cynicism among school practitioners and a "compliance" mentality among state and local officials.
In hindsight, NCLB's passage was less about improving schools or fostering results-based public sector accountability than about declaring fealty to a gallant but utopian ambition, one that the statute welded to a clumsy, heavy-handed set of procedural mandates.
NCLB is, in fact, a civil rights manifesto masquerading as an education accountability system. Its grand ambition provided a shaky basis for policymaking, rather as if Congress asserted in the name of energy reform that America will no longer need to import oil after 2014 or fought crime by declaring that by that date all U.S. cities would be peaceable kingdoms.
NCLB's particular brand of hubris has solid precedent. Picture John Kennedy...