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The Unraveling of No Child Left Behind

Authors: Gail Sunderman, Gary Orfield
Date Published: February 01, 2006

A fundamental problem with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) as reauthorization approaches is that what once seemed a clear if highly controversial policy has now become a set of bargains and treaties with various states.
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February 2006

The Unraveling of No Child Left Behind: 
How Negotiated Changes Transform the Law

By Gail L. Sunderman
Foreword by Gary Orfield

A fundamental problem with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) as reauthorization approaches is that what once seemed a clear if highly controversial policy has now become a set of bargains and treaties with various states.  Federal aid programs rarely produce raging controversy, but NCLB, the major domestic policy accomplishment of the Bush Administration, has stirred passions across the country.  Some of the attacks, coming from conservatives as well as liberals claim that the act itself or the policies being enforced under the act are illegal or even unconstitutional.  You can see these claims in the report of the National Conference of State Legislatures and from the leader of the legislative battle to withdraw Utah from the program. This report is not about claims regarding the constitutionality of the law, but it does consider the idea of lawfulness in another important sense—the creation of uniform, neutral, clear standards that can be readily understood by those who are duty bound to obey them. Needless to say, if serious sanctions are connected to far-reaching and substantive requirements, people on the front line want clear and consistent policies so that they can know what is expected and what will trigger loss of funds or imposition of drastic educational changes such as dissolving a school and removing its faculty.

Inevitably when a sweeping, one-dimensional policy is imposed on a vast and sprawling nation with a tradition of striking decentralization and massive differences in many conditions affecting schooling, there will be problems and adjustments to make.  In this sense, it is certainly not surprising that the most expansive assertion of federal power over schools in American history should encounter unexpected and sometimes very deep problems that require changes and modifications.  These problems were greatly intensified by requirements that schools show improvements in performance every year, and in many cases, achieve above average performance for all students, something that had never been done in any high poverty district.  These unforeseen circumstances are exactly what congressional oversight and good evaluation by administrators and researchers are supposed to discover and correct.  

It is not surprising that controversy has erupted over NCLB; it was wholly predictable.  A major problem has been the failure of Congress and the Administration to acknowledge and correct the problems even as opposition has grown across the nation.  Congress has not provided serious oversight of the working of the law and has not adopted timely amendments. The Bush Administration has not commissioned independent research on the implementation of the policy and refused to admit rather obvious mistakes until virtual rebellion took hold in the field.  For years the Administration engaged in political attacks on those who pointed out the problems and then insisted that no substantial changes in the law were needed.  Any federal program, however, needs continuing support from a Congress elected at the state and local level.  Recognizing that something had to be done to respond to critical problems with the law and the large number of schools being identified as failing, the Administration negotiated changes individually with states.  While these ad hoc deals to respond to the massive political and professional criticism of the policy have led to something that may be useful for short-term political support, they have created massive confusion and resentment across the country and cynicism about the real meaning of the law and its administration.


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