The Dems Can Save NCLB

Throughout this primary, the Democratic debate on education reform has been hollow and lackluster, consisting of little more than vague attacks on No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Sidestepping any real discussion of NCLB, the candidates have instead focused their primary stumping on revamping pre-school and Head Start programs. Although early education is important, the next superintendent-in-chief will have to spend much more energy transforming NCLB, which, despite its many flaws, should remain the centerpiece of Federal education policy.

Shortcomings in how the Bush administration has administered the program notwithstanding, NCLB has a progressive design. It has its roots in the Clinton administration’s Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994, which aimed to improve local performance through federal oversight and channel funds to schools with underperforming minority students. The NCLB Act the George W. Bush team proposed to Congress in 2001 embodied many of the same principles, but increased autonomy for both states and local districts. And that is why it now fails.

NCLB is fouled up because it doesn’t have enough muscle, and the consequences are severe. Although national scores have improved slightly and the racial achievement gap is narrowing in some parts of the country, NCLB fails to accomplish what its proponents said it would. Fourth graders can read in South Carolina but not in Tennessee. Eighth grade test scores are improving, but high school scores are plummeting.

Most people are uninformed as to what NCLB does and does not demand from schools. To begin with, it doesn’t stipulate particular outcomes. The federal government merely encourages responsibility from districts and states by lightly policing administrative practices. In order to receive federal dollars—which only account for 7% of the average school’s funds—states need only meet general requirements, like reporting test results, and administering school vouchers. Only in extreme circumstances are principals replaced, teachers fired, or students held back. Schools place imprudent emphasis on average test scores and become overly concerned with fealty to procedure, and the repercussion is that they don’t monitor the performance of individual students.

I have to imagine that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama recognize these weaknesses. But neither proposes bold changes, even though there are several integrated policies the Democrats could propose to solve the potency problem, all of which can be defended on party principles. To the extent that these ideas are already being espoused, it is only in vague language.

To be sure, Senator Obama has decried the lack of comprehensive evaluation of student progress and has suggested a tracking and feedback system that would measure both student and teacher performance from year to year. This is a good idea.

But, what it lacks, and what any serious education policy proposal must include, is support for a national exam, which would centralize and streamline the criteria for success. Why should each state fashion its own standards if they’re all receiving the same federal funding?

Such an exam would be a content-based, minimum competency test, ensuring that students learn basic skills before exiting each grade. Such an exam adds the benefits of closer student-teacher relationships due to team preparation, and helps to pinpoint the areas in which a student or teacher is underperforming in comparison to their peers across the country.

A transformative education plan should incorporate higher teacher accountability measures, which will have to sit well with the National Education Association (NEA), which unites powerful teachers’ unions and exerts a tremendous amount of control over votes, campaign funds, and school boards.

A bargain must be struck, swapping an increase in general teacher salaries for stricter standards on how well teachers must perform to keep their post. The NEA is violently opposed to any threats to traditional job security, but like any other lobby can be paid off. Democrats should propose extra pay for teachers in underserved areas. Higher wages overall will help ensure a bargain and improve the prestige of the profession. Teacher’s should receive more benefits, but not without more responsibilities.

Lastly, the Democrat candidates would do well to address NCLB’s major structural problem. Only one candidate, Senator Hillary Clinton, has been perspicacious enough to do so thus far.

Hillary’s platform notes that we should measure school improvement based on the year-to-year performance of students rather than by how schools with disparate local funds stack-up against each other. Currently, all schools are expected to have a certain percentage of students meet a predetermined level of math and reading proficiency each year. This is a bit like asking the tortoise to beat the hare. It’s possible, but highly unlikely outside the fairy-tale world of stump-rhetoric. Rather than asking low-income schools to catch-up to institutions soaked in high property taxes, the program should dish out rewards and sanctions based on individual school improvement.

Most students and teachers care about how they measure up. They just need to have a clear set of standards to shoot for and then they can choose the means themselves.

A centralized education strategy helps Democrats best the Republican Party, as it puts them truly arm-in-arm with the American Dream. Senator John McCain is focused on pumping up the voucher system rather than transforming a more-than-salvageable policy. If the Democratic public policy agenda calls for a high-standards education system, attached to a strong economy and national security—at a time when middle-class voters are beginning to link these concepts in their own minds—they will be victorious in November.

Raúl A. Carrillo ‘10, a Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House.