Commentary

Unhappy Birthday

Today the No Child Left Behind Act turns six, and even as President Bush and other supporters sing “Happy Birthday,” the time has come to blow out the candles on it for good.

Since NCLB’s enactment in 2002, its supporters have been quick to credit it for anything even resembling improvement in American education, whether upticks in history knowledge (with which the law doesn’t deal), or improved math and reading scores. President Bush typified the whole always-declare-success strategy at an NCLB birthday bash Monday in Chicago when, at the outset of his speech, he declared simply, “I know No Child Left Behind has worked.”

Like the president, supporters ultimately point to modest overall increases in the mathematics and reading scores of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, as well as decreasing black-white “achievement gap” numbers, to support claims of NCLB’s effectiveness. And overall scores on NAEP — the so-called “Nation’s Report Card” — have indeed generally inched up under NCLB while achievement gaps have decreased.

However, these superficial statistics in no way prove that NCLB has worked.

For one thing, so many reforms have been implemented at the same time as NCLB — school-choice programs, merit pay, smaller schools — that it’s impossible to know how much NCLB has been responsible for anything. But suppose NCLB could get credit. An objective analysis suggests that the law is probably worse than the unimpressive status quo it replaced. NAEP reading and mathematics scores were generally inching up faster in the years immediately prior to NCLB than they have since, and achievement gaps were closing more quickly. In addition, recent results from two international exams — the Program for International Student Assessment and the Program on International Reading Literacy Survey — showed U.S. scores either stagnating or declining. Oh, and spending on NCLB programs has increased by over 40 percent since 2001, rising from $17 billion to over $24 billion.

The backers’ sound-bite declarations of victory reflect the fundamental problem with NCLB. The president championed the law, so his political interests — and maybe his domestic legacy, too — hinge on convincing people that it works, even though it’s not at all clear that it has. Indeed, NCLB was written first and foremost for the benefit of the politicians who backed it. It demands state standards and testing so that politicians can seem tough on bad schools, but allows states to write the standards and tests themselves, so that politicians appear champions of local control and federalism. The utterly predictable result has been the implementation of very low standards in almost every state, and huzzahs whenever they’ve been met.

Despite all this, it would be wrong to blame NCLB for all the trouble its making. It is, after all, just a six-year old child. The ultimate blame lies with the parents, Congress, and the White House, who have been messing up in education since they first passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — of which NCLB is just the latest version — back in 1965. Their pattern of destructive behavior should sound familiar: Despite ESEA spending exploding from around $5 billion in 1966 to over $24 billion in 2007(inflation-adjusted), long-term NAEP scores have remained essentially flat for decades.

NCLB was written first and foremost for the benefit of the politicians who backed it.”

As with NCLB, since day one the federal government has been enacting education policies designed to make politicians appear to “care” about education and children, whether they help children or not. Indeed, in 1975, after analyzing the first ten years of Title I — ESEA’s main component — Rand Corporation researcher Milbrey McLaughlin concluded that “the teachers, administrators, and others whose salaries are paid by Title I, or whose budgets are balanced by its funds, are…a more powerful constituency than those poor parents who are disillusioned by its unfulfilled promise.”

Of course they are. Politicians, like all people, are self-interested, and ultimately look out for number one. When it comes to federal education policy, that means doing whatever works best in the sound-bite driven media, and the eyes of the education interest groups that infest Washington looking for as much money and as little accountability as possible. It also means largely ignoring parents and children, who have no full-time lobbies, and who either don’t vote, or vote on myriad issues that are often more important at the federal level, like foreign policy and health care.

In light of what we know about NCLB and decades of federal education meddling, Americans ought to demand something truly worth celebrating on NCLB’s birthday: The end of federal intervention in American education. To make their demands heard over the shouts of the lobbyists and self-congratulations of the politicians, though, they’ll have to yell pretty darn loud.

Neal McCluskey is associate director of the Center for Educational Freedom and author of the book Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education.