NPR logo Stop Picking On No Child Left Behind (Says One Of Its Parents)

Stop Picking On No Child Left Behind (Says One Of Its Parents)

Sandy Kress (right) an attorney from Dallas, listens to Texas Education Agency general counsel David Anderson in 2004. Kress was the chief education consultant to the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind initiative. Harry Cabluck/AP hide caption

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Harry Cabluck/AP

Sandy Kress (right) an attorney from Dallas, listens to Texas Education Agency general counsel David Anderson in 2004. Kress was the chief education consultant to the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind initiative.

Harry Cabluck/AP

It's official. More than 13 years after President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law, it's now ... well, still law. But, as of Thursday, it is one big step closer to retirement.

The U.S. Senate voted 81-17 in favor of a bipartisan overhaul called the Every Child Achieves Act. The move comes just days after House Republicans voted on a rival plan, one that cleared the House without a single Democratic vote. The two bills must now be reconciled before anything makes its way to the president. Obama has already threatened the House bill with a veto.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is, itself, an overhaul of a much older law: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), first signed by President Lyndon Johnson back in 1965. It was conceived and driven by a powerful conviction that the federal government had to intervene in the education of poor and minority students who were not well-served by their states and local public schools.

Bush signed NCLB in early 2002, and it did what no ESEA reauthorization had done before: It forced states to test all children and held schools accountable when low scores stayed low. Many critics in Congress (and the classroom) argue that the law overstepped, supplanting local control of schools and driving them to over-test — hence NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia calling it "No Child Left Untested." But backers (yes, there are many) worry that rolling back NCLB would be a mistake and that the neediest students would suffer most.

It's a debate that worries Sandy Kress, one of the architects of NCLB and a longtime advocate of the federal role in education. I sat down with him to talk about the law, its flaws, and the big difference he believes it's made.

"The truth is that the reforms enacted under NCLB clearly helped all students improve their learning," Kress insists. "White children improved, but disadvantaged children improved even more in significant degrees. And we saw some narrowing in the achievement gap. You'd think this would be important and that we would build on it. As the number of poor kids moves from 51 to 55 percent or more [of the overall school population], it'll be more difficult to reach a political consensus on a strategy to help them."

Critics say the federal government's mandates aren't just heavy-handed, they're unfunded. As you point out, education funding from Washington on average represents less than 10 percent of local school budgets.

In that regard, there's universal agreement that education decisions should be made at the local and state level. And yes, NCLB implementation was flawed, but states did not do their part either.

For example?

I think parents would be stunned to find out that more than half of all testing is not due to the annual testing required by NCLB but to state and local tests. NCLB never called for this massive amount of daily or weekly testing that has made the law unpopular. NCLB simply asked for once-a-year summative tests in grades 3-8, and once in high school. I happen to share [Education] Secretary Arne Duncan's view that we need to do an inventory of how much testing is going on and discourage it if it's too much.

You say it would be a mistake for lawmakers to roll back federal testing requirements or go back to the "old days" when there were none. Why?

In the old days, when a child passed the fourth-grade test but failed the seventh-grade test, the parents didn't know what went wrong. We couldn't hold the school accountable. There was a perverse motivation to put the best teachers in the grades that were tested.

Republican lawmakers, especially in the House, who were never fans of NCLB, are the leading critics of the law and thus far have proposed changes that Democrats and the Obama administration oppose.

Obviously it's a highly partisan environment, and there are things Obama has done that exude overreach to Republicans. What moderate Republicans are going to have trouble with is the tension with those [in their party] who want to reduce the federal role to revenue-sharing with states, block grants, for example, with few or no strings attached. We just send the money down and hope for the best — no measure, no standards, no requirements. ...

My question for Republicans is, if you're not going to assure that people understand the effectiveness of federal spending, why are we borrowing and spending the money in the first place? I mean, either you're for efficiency and effectiveness or you should be against the borrowing and spending. There's nothing conservative about borrowing or spending with no assurance that the money is being well-spent.

So what should president Obama be saying to Republicans and Americans in general?

This is a national issue, and if we're going to continue to invest in education, we need to know that our children are learning to higher standards. If the president gave a speech that had some elements of that — not partisan and not 'me me me and everybody else is wrong' — he could give some direction to the [reauthorization] debate.

Will NCLB/ESEA be reauthorized this year?

The odds are greater that it will, but too many problems stand in the way: the opposition to 'all things Obama,' a spending freeze on the part of Republicans, the consternation among civil rights groups fearful that Congress will remove things like annual testing and reporting results by race and income, or the disagreement among conservatives about what the conservative thing to do is.

Reauthorization has a 50-50 chance.