Williams: NCLB Sounded Tougher on Accountability Than It Actually Was and Yet It Was Still Demonized

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Many years ago, back when the Great American Political Conflagration of 2017 was just a handful of feverish sparks in the Tea Party’s eyes, a young Delaware Republican named Christine O’Donnell set out to take the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Vice President Joe Biden.

She got off to a tough start. While anti-establishment, anti-elites demagoguery pulled her through the Republican primaries, reality bit back in the general election. O’Donnell had résumé troubles and a range of other political luggage — including an old video in which she claimed to have “dabbled in witchcraft.”

Desperate, O’Donnell launched an ad. “I’m not a witch,” she pleaded. “I’m nothing you’ve heard.”

The ad — spoiler alert — couldn’t lift the curse on O’Donnell’s campaign, but her protests against her public labeling became an instant legend. In the world of politics, nothing is more difficult than unraveling an established narrative.

Which — no, really — brings us to No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Beloved at its inception, confused in its implementation, the law was almost universally dismissed when it was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act in late 2015. If we could wave a wand and cast a spell that would raise it back to life, NCLB might well be spluttering just like O’Donnell.

“I’m not a draconian federal intrusion into American schools. I’m not the destruction of public education,” it would say. “I’m nothing you’ve heard.”

How did this happen? Well, in the two or three decades before NCLB, the federal government tried a variety of mostly voluntary ways of getting states to set — and raise — their expectations for schools. Some did. Most didn’t. To a degree, NCLB represents a certain national exasperation with the pace of progress under state-driven education reform.

That’s why No Child Left Behind expanded the federal government’s involvement in state and local educational decisions. It significantly increased the pressure on states to define what they believed students should know and be able to do in each grade. It required states and districts to use assessments to track how students were doing at meeting those expectations. It increased transparency in public education by requiring the collection and publication of more data on student achievement. In particular, it made states break out student achievement data by different student groups — English learners, students of different races, etc — that made it much easier to see achievement gaps.

The law’s approach wasn’t perfect — it was probably too blunt in a number of places. But neither was it some impossibly foreign idea in education policy. After years of cajoling, begging, and wheedling states to set some basic academic standards and check whether kids were meeting them, federal policymakers decided to just make states do it.

But at every stage of the way, states monkeyed around with the supposed mandates. NCLB required them to set some academic standards, but it didn’t really specify how rigorous those had to be. Predictably, states were all over the map.

NCLB also required states to administer some consequences for schools where kids were routinely falling short of those (again, disparate) academic expectations. It even included a list of options, and they sounded fierce. Persistently struggling schools (those missing targets for five consecutive years) were required to do things like fire all the staff, submit to a takeover by the state, convert into a public charter school, or contract out to a private schools operator.

And yet, the law also permitted such schools to try “other major restructuring.” Early returns suggested that most states did not have the appetite for NCLB’s dramatic options; most opted instead for other less comprehensive, less disruptive, and less impactful strategies.

Put another way, No Child Left Behind pulled its punches, even if its critics never did. It sounded rough, it sounded tough, but it gave states ample room to shield their schools’ performance from most of its strongest provisions. Then, after this partial and inconsistent application led to significant — but not enormous — academic gains, opponents could focus on all the law’s tedious, unpopular, (usually) inflexible requirements.

That’s no way to evaluate a policy. Or, to carry the conceit a bit too far — that is no way to work out whether someone is a witch. It is, however, a perfectly effective way of undermining an idea’s public standing — in preparation for its dismissal.

“I’m nothing you’ve heard,” insists the law. “I’m not too overbearing — if anything, I’m too weak.”

And yet, the Every Student Succeeds Act gives states far more room to set their own definitions of educational success and equity. Do they have the capacity — and the political will — to do this well? To do this fairly? In the best-case scenario, the infrastructure of standards, assessments, and institutional expectations that NCLB built will maintain some level of transparency and accountability for low-performing schools. In the likely-case scenario, however, states will design plans that obscure school performance, generally ignore weak federal legislative text, and generally allow the NCLB era’s reform urgency to dissipate.

So spare a thought today for the boxed-in, those who have been defined out of legitimacy by the political currents. Their detractors wrote them a tragic role in our public narratives, and no amount of magic could bring them back. As for O’Donnell, witch or not, she was a difficult figure to defend in any case, and the stakes weren’t particularly high — especially as far as kids are concerned.

If only we could say the same for federal education law.

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