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Children are the losers in polarized debate over 'No Child Left Behind' program

Bruce Fuller is a professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, codirector of the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) center, and the author of "Inside Charter Schools." This article, written by Fuller, was originally published in the Washington Post on February 1, 2004.

 Bruce Fuller
Bruce Fuller (Bonnie Powell photo)

BERKELEY – For children and teachers across America, it's rather bad news. Education is now the No. 2 preoccupation of voters, running just behind worries over jobs, according to recent polls. So a political catfight has suddenly broken out between President Bush, who's loudly trumpeting his federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) school reforms, and the Democratic presidential candidates, whose critical attacks on them are growing more shrill. Instead of pulling together to revitalize the schools, they're simply pummeling each other over this politically pivotal issue.

Bush took his reforms on the road last month, staging photo-ops with schoolchildren sitting beneath cute "No Child Left Behind" banners. And he made a pitch for his plan early in the State of the Union address, applauding Congress for "raising the standards of our public schools" by passing the act, which sets annual targets for schools to meet in boosting student achievement and requires states to hire better qualified teachers and test students more frequently in English and math.

Democratic presidential candidates, however, were having none of it. Sen. John Kerry has accused Bush of being nothing more than a "photo-op president" on education and of "undermining" the public schools with his implementation of NCLB. Sen. John Edwards, after voting for NLCB, like Kerry, just over two years ago, now claims Bush's implementation is "unfair, unwise and unacceptable." And, reversing the Democrats' 40-year push for Washington to take a more activist role in education, Howard Dean called for the dismantling of NCLB and declared that "local communities can best ... run their public school systems."

So NCLB has risen from obscure acronym to political punching bag. The suddenly polarized debate over its reforms may make for good campaign rhetoric, but it undercuts serious efforts to repair Washington's earnest – and, until recently, bipartisan – attempt to boost the nation's schools. That repair is not only doable, it could also restore public faith in government's ability to motivate improvement in the schools, rather than set educators up for failure.

The Democrats' campaign rhetoric aside, the case can be made that NCLB has become a bundle of good intentions gone awry. Bush's tough love for schools has clearly gotten the attention of teachers and local school leaders. But the law's tangled rules have mystified – and demoralized – many. Meanwhile, parents are increasingly confused about what is arguably the most centralized, micromanaged education policy attempted by Washington since forced busing. Florida parents, for instance, are scratching their heads, asking how Washington could have deemed 87 percent of the state's schools failing last fall, even as Gov. Jeb Bush was praising most for raising kids' learning curves.

And it's not only graying liberals and teacher unions that are complaining. The chairman of Virginia's House Education Committee, Fairfax Republican Del. James H. Dillard II, summed up local sentiments last week. "The damn law is ludicrous," he said, just before the House of Delegates voted 98-1 to secede from the program. When the Republicans commissioned a poll on Americans' attitudes toward NCLB last month, the results undercut the very case they hoped to bolster: Few respondents could cite any school improvements stemming from Bush's initiative, and Democrats were again seen as the most trusted party to advance education.

As local support for NCLB erodes, the administration is circling the wagons. "I find it staggering," declared Education Secretary Rod Paige after the Democrats' barrage last month, "that the very critics ... that fought so hard for civil rights could leave our African American, Hispanic American and special-needs children behind." But Bush would do better to take a more tempered tack and pull out of the political food fight. He should remind critics that any new, complicated policy typically requires fine-tuning – and begin the task of making repairs. By doing so, he would disarm Democratic opponents, who now enjoy an easy policy target and nine months to exploit it.

I co-head a team of researchers here at the University of California who have spent weeks inside schools observing implementation of both NCLB and state reforms, listening to teachers and principals. Our investigation has uncovered practical fixes that could improve Washington's reform strategy. Start with Bush's mandate that all children be reading and computing at grade level by 2014. This goal sits at the top of a staircase that every school must now ascend. The president is right to remain hawkish on setting high learning standards. The Democrats seem to have forgotten that just a decade ago many states didn't even track how students were performing, and no mechanism held educators accountable for why certain students displayed anemic achievement year after year.

But would government ever require automakers to produce emissions-free cars in the space of a decade, then shut down companies that failed to meet a pie-in-the-sky goal? Of course not. Better to set demanding yet pragmatic standards and require clear signs of progress. Schools should be rewarded for elevating achievement levels by some degree, rather than penalized for not meeting an absolute, unrealistic standard. The ideal level of proficiency for all – just like emissions-free cars – could then be approached gradually, over time.

NCLB also requires that 95 percent of all children from each student subgroup in a school – defined by ethnicity, learning disability or English proficiency – sit for annual exams. Thus, if a suburban school enrolls 50 kids with learning disabilities, and three are sick on testing day, Bush's Orwellian rules stamp the school as failing. This testing requirement could be lowered to 85 percent, with careful tracking to identify schools that may be conveniently losing low-performing students on testing day, thus artificially inflating their average test scores.

NCLB needs serious repair to avoid unfairly penalizing schools that serve a more diverse student body, which by definition face more hurdles in NCLB. Our research team discovered a school in Oakland that enrolls six different subgroups of children. Manzanita Elementary raised average test scores by 18 percent in just two years. But because seven African American pupils failed to raise their math scores, federal sanctions – which allow parents to pull their children from the schools in question and mandate that cash-strapped districts offer special tutoring – kicked in. Meanwhile, Golden Gate Elementary, a stone's throw away, easily passed muster with an average test score statistically equal to Manzanita's. Why? Because it serves only one student subgroup – low-income blacks – and thus had to meet NCLB requirement only for that one group. This diversity penalty should be eliminated.

NCLB tells states that all teachers must be credentialed by the start of the 2005 school year, a requirement for which states must foot the bill. Boosting teacher quality is certainly key, and the administration's intentions in this regard are virtuous. But Bush's education chief wants to upgrade the skills of young teachers via Web-based courses or quick-and-dirty weekend programs, despite little evidence that these strategies work. Instead, Washington should fund university-based training with lots of time inside real classrooms. And it should help states distribute strong teachers equitably among rich and poor communities.

Then there's the matter of carrots and sticks. No private business would try to raise productivity by stigmatizing and flogging its employees. But Bush's program tacitly banks on a Calvinist theory of motivation: praise rarely, punish often. Though conservatives have for years urged merit pay for effective teachers, NCLB offers no incentives of any kind. But it should.

Perhaps most troubling in the long run is how Bush's top-down dictates have deflated the earlier enthusiasm of the nation's governors. After the first President Bush assembled all 50 of them in his 1989 education summit in Charlottesville, the states led the way in crafting more demanding curriculums, raising achievement standards and teacher salaries, and rigorously tracking student progress. In turn, children's learning curves rose in many states throughout the 1990s. Now, Thomas Jefferson's nightmare is unfolding: Federal agents bypass governors and local school boards to pass judgment on each and every local school. Parents are increasingly befuddled because duplicative federal and state accountability systems pass conflicting judgments on the same neighborhood school. Washington could set simple, challenging standards, and then negotiate with states to ensure careful tracking of achievement and that no student subgroup is left behind.

It's maddening that these policy fixes may have to wait because Bush and his Democratic rivals are more eager to gain political advantage than to carefully retool NCLB. Both sides should ponder the fallout of fueling their inflammatory debate. Worn down by strident rhetoric and the uncertain local impact of NCLB, voters may grow skeptical of government's ability to improve the schools. Our children would be the big losers, especially those who remain left behind.