Getting Out from Under NCLB

by John McClaughry

John McClaughry

Early in 2002 a Republican Congress, responding to the urging of their “compassionate conservative” President, adopted what has rightly been described as “the most intrusive Federal education law in American history.”

The 1,100 page No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) reflected President Bush’s belief that the Federal government could , by offering the states a package of education “reforms” along with substantial Federal funding, induce the states to improve public education.

Liberal Democrats who had long supported a flood of new federal funding to their state and local public education constituencies readily signed on.. They were confident that any annoying federal mandates imposed on those bureaucracies would be soon weakened, repealed or easily evaded without reducing the flow of federal dollars.

NCLB gave out the money on condition that states require schools to establish standards and annually assess students for “proficiency” in reading, science and math. It required all schools to achieve 100 percent student proficiency by 2014.

The act required “Adequate Yearly Progress” in approaching that astounding goal. If schools fail to make AYP, they must allow pupils to transfer to better public schools within the district (sorry, no transfer to independent schools). Then comes outside tutoring paid for by the district. Then comes big changes in staffing and curriculum. Finally, in the fourth year of AYP failure, the state would take over the school.

What is notable in NCLB, and essential to its passage, is that each state remained free to adopt its own standards and the test for measuring student “proficiency”. Rather than run the political risk of having a low proficiency rate, states naturally contrived standards that a very high percentage of students could meet.

For example, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island went together to adopt standards keyed to a test called NECAP, spending millions of dollars in the process. The test is conspicuously less demanding that the national gold standard, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. (NAEP results are reported by state, not by individual school district, so can’t be used for NCLB.)

A comparison of Vermont eighth grader reading performance over the past four years shows NECAP proficiency scores in the 65-70% range. The Department of Education regularly extols this success.

But over the same four years the Vermont eighth grade students achieving proficiency under the NAEP test range from 40-43%. Faced with this embarrassingly low rate, the Department points out, correctly, that Vermont students are in the top tier of all U.S. students.

Clearly the NECAP test is much less demanding that the NAEP test, and the state Departments of Education set NECAP “cut scores” low to increase the fraction of students who qualify as “proficient.”

On September 15 Governor Shumlin and Commissioner Armando Vilaseca joined in a letter to the President, extolling Vermont’s educational leadership and successes, and requesting “relief from the one-size-fits-all requirements and sanctions imposed by the sections on Accountability, Assessment, and Improvement” in NCLB.

It is universally conceded that it will be impossible for states to achieve 100% student proficiency on any test, no matter how dumbed down, by 2014. Already 72 of Vermont’s 306 schools fail to meet the AYP benchmark, and complying will become ever more difficult.

To spare public school educators disruption and embarrassment all across the country, President Obama last month announced a new policy of NCLB “flexibility”. Since Congress is not of a mind to amend the law to his liking, Obama will essentially rewrite the law himself to let states off the NCLB hook if they comply with a whole new bunch of federal requirements. These new mandates, arguably extralegal, will according to former Rutland Northeast superintendent and longtime NCLB critic Dr. William Mathis, “have massive cost, educational, and ethical implications.”

Math is, incidentally, is the state’s most fervent defender of ever increasing public school spending. He also vigorously opposes parental choice and any form of “high stakes testing”. Gov. Shumlin named Mathis to the State Board of Education earlier this year.

NCLB was a bad idea when President Bush thought it up. Just saying no to it now, and regaining control of our own public education system, would deprive Vermont of $58 million handy federal dollars, almost $5 million of which feed the Commissioner and his Montpelier staff. So that won’t happen.

Instead, governor, commissioner, board, and superintendents will keep on seeking a minimally demanding NCLB compliance deal with Washington that protects the public school establishment, avoids any branding of failure, and above all, keeps the money coming.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (