A few days ago, I had the pleasure of reading one of the most thoughtful pieces about NCLB that I've ever read, and I'd like to share it with you.
In this piece in National Review Online, Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (disclosure: The Fordham Foundation provides funding to GreatSchools) describes himself as a backer of the core ideas behind NCLB, which he describes as follows:
"First, that virtually all children (even those living in poverty) have the capacity to achieve a reasonable level of proficiency in reading and math by the time they turn 18 — and that it’s the education system’s job to make sure they do. Second, that everyone benefits from having someone looking over his shoulder and that schools and school systems need external pressure — i.e., accountability — in order to improve; good intentions aren’t enough. Third, that good education is synonymous with good teaching. This requires good teachers, which every child deserves, but which today’s education bureaucracies, licensure rules, ed schools, and union contracts too often impede. Fourth, that giving parents choices within the education system has all kinds of positive benefits, from creating healthy competitive pressures to allowing educators to customize their programs instead of trying to be all things to all people. And fifth, that improving education is a national imperative, and that the federal government can and should play a constructive role."
But then he acknowledges that he may have overestimated the role that the federal government can play in bringing these ideas to practice in schools around the country:
"Using sticks and carrots to tug and prod states and districts in desired directions has proven unworkable. It was worth trying but experience has taught us that this approach suffers from too much hubris and humility at the same time. Instead of this muddle, the feds should adopt a simple, radical principle: Do it yourself or don’t do it at all."
He continues by suggesting that the Feds restrict themselves to two major responsibilities: distributing funds to the neediest students, and collecting and publishing transparent information about the performance of U.S. schools. To be able to do the second, we need to establish clear national standards with a national test, and develop a common approach to school ratings. "Then," he writes, "everyone would have a consistent and fair way to distinguish good schools from bad. We would have consistently high expectations for all students and all schools, and would end the federal/state cat-and-mouse games being played over accountability."
Then, he continues:
"Into the 'Don’t Do it At All' bucket goes everything else. No more federal mandates on teacher quality. No more prescriptive 'cascade of sanctions' for failing schools. No more federal guarantee of school choice for children not being well-served. The states would worry about how to define and achieve greater teacher quality (or, better, teacher effectiveness). The states would decide when and how to intervene in failing schools. The states would develop new capacity for school choice. These are all important, powerful reforms, but they have proven beyond Uncle Sam’s capacity to make happen. These policy battles should return to the state level, where governments can actually do something about them and do them right. And if the federal government just can’t help itself and wants to 'promote' these causes, let it offer competitive grants for states and districts that want to move in these directions.
The Do It Yourself or Don’t Do It At All Act doesn’t have the same ring as leaving no child behind. But its zeitgeist is the same. It would also be a better fit for our federalist system and a more effective vehicle for the reform ideas that we NCLB supporters hold so dear. In this new year, let us resolve to be humble enough to admit the law’s limitations and brave enough to stand up for its ideals."
Since Petrilli published this, he has collaborated with Fordham Foundation President Chester Finn to write this follow-up piece describing their position further; check it out for more details.
Pretty compelling I think: Maintain the essential goal of the law to bring more students to proficiency, but leave it up to states and local districts to figure out how to get there.