In domestic policy, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education act is the Bush administration’s top claim to visionary leadership—its equivalent of the Iraqi war in foreign policy. The administration has used the taxpayers’ own money to try to convince them that NCLB has been an unqualified success, draping the Department of Education’s headquarters building in Washington in propaganda banners and fake little red schoolhouses. It has hired a public relations firm specifically to ballyhoo this one statute, which the White House has likened to landmark programs such as the Social Security Act or the Homestead Act. In his acceptance speech at the 2004 Republican convention, President Bush called NCLB “the most important federal education reform in history.” Even before his second inauguration, he proposed to extend its provisions from elementary schools to high schools.
Especially striking is Bush’s boast that he has increased federal spending on education faster than any president since Lyndon Johnson. That is a reversal as profound as the Clinton administration’s embrace of welfare reform in 1996; in both cases the party in power accepted ideas long associated with its opponents. The Republican reversal is the more stunning of the two because most members of the president’s party on Capitol Hill changed course with him. During the Republican party’s rise to majority status from the 1960s to the 1990s, it usually opposed centralized federal programs in education as in other areas. As recently as 1996, the party’s platform pledged to abolish the U.S. Department of Education.
With party loyalty keeping most congressional Republicans from criticizing NCLB, its skeptics currently find themselves marginalized in Washington. But in the long run the statute should and will be judged by its actual results.
Dangers of Centralization
NCLB’s success will depend on whether it is possible to produce excellent educational performance through centralization. Its advocates are in a self‐contradictory position. They recognize that the educational policies of the last four decades—a period of almost uninterrupted centralization—have failed, but their remedy for that failure is yet more centralization. While invoking the principles of an “ownership society” on issues such as Social Security reform, they are pursuing almost the exact opposite model in schools. In a period of growing social mobility and individual autonomy, they are promoting a top‐down, Great Society model of reform—transferring power from individual parents, teachers, and principals to distant bureaucracies such as state education agencies.
Ironically, education is precisely that area of social policy that by its nature is least susceptible to centralization. Education is inherently personal and inherently value laden. The key relationships in schools are those between individual teachers and individual students: If the teachers are not willingly committed and highly motivated, no centralized rule books or formulas are going to inspire peak performance. To use social science jargon, schools are “loosely coupled systems”; decrees from centralized administrators have little power to boost their performance from mediocre to excellent but enormous power to impede. Indeed, before the mid‐20th century such administrators were either nonexistent or mostly irrelevant; key decisions were made at the level of the individual school.
Moreover, schooling inescapably involves judgments about truth and virtue, about what kind of person a youngster should aspire to be. Americans inevitably disagree with each other about those judgments. Which dead politicians should children be encouraged to revere as heroes? What should they be taught about ancient belief systems such as Christianity and Islam—and about modern ideologies such as feminism and environmentalism? Should “traditional values” such as piety, chastity, and asceticism be celebrated, ridiculed, or simply ignored? Today’s Americans have no more chance of reaching consensus on those questions than of agreeing on what church (if any) we should all attend; that is why we keep the state out of controlling churches, just as we keep it out of other value‐forming institutions such as publishing and journalism. The more we entrust such decisions to centralized state agencies, the more conflicts we foment. Zero‐sum “culture wars” for control of coercive state monopolies make enemies of people who could otherwise be friends.
NCLB does not explicitly call for national curricula. It mandates standards for testing, not for curricula, and leaves the content and design of the tests up to the states. But in the long run tests, at least to some degree, shape curricula. NCLB is already promoting centralization within each state; it could become a force for national centralization as well if future administrations exercise to its full potential their power to deny federal funding to states whose testing programs are deemed inadequate.
So far, the Bush administration has been cautious in exercising that power. During last year’s election campaign, the administration tried to perpetuate the congenial atmosphere of the bipartisan signing ceremony when NCLB became law in 2002. But now the administration, and future administrations, will face a dilemma. NCLB virtually guarantees massive evasion of its own intent: It orders the state education agencies to do things that many of them don’t want to do—such as instituting detailed, rigorous testing programs that enable the public to distinguish successful from unsuccessful schools—while giving those agencies broad discretion about just how to do those things. As the states devise various tactics for evading the letter and spirit of the law, Washington policymakers will be forced either to let them get away with those tactics or to keep amending NCLB’s statutory text (already about 1,100 pages long) and associated regulations in order to keep up with ever more inventive evasions.
A Strategy at War with Itself
If policymakers choose the former course, NCLB might as well not exist; like other federal education programs, it will be just one more drain on taxpayers and provide subsidies to special interests, in this case to the testing companies. But if policymakers instead choose to amend the statute, they will end up making it steadily more prescriptive and top‐heavy. Washington’s education officials will more and more resemble Soviet central planners trying to improve economic performance by micromanaging decisions from Moscow. Unlike Soviet bureaucrats, however, the federal government lacks a captive labor force; the more centralized the system becomes, the more likely the educators with the greatest creativity and leadership will be to seek careers elsewhere rather than accept being pawns of the central government. As a strategy for promoting “excellence,” centralization is inherently self‐defeating.
Thus NCLB is a reform strategy at war with itself: It can work on its own terms only if federal officials ride tight herd on their state counterparts, overriding them whenever they sacrifice reform to special‐interest pressures. Its authors have already said that they will do no such thing, rightly invoking principles such as states’ rights and the absence of a constitutional warrant for federal control of local schools. But if they were truly serious about those principles, they would never have enacted NCLB to begin with. As James Madison observed in the Federalist Papers, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce.… The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.” The word “education” does not once appear in the Constitution.
If federal policymakers decide to get truly serious about using NCLB as a tool to muscle through fundamental reforms against the will of the entrenched special interests, they will find that they have to discard whatever remains of their constitutional scruples. Future historians may look back on NCLB as simply one more phase in the gradual building of a national ministry of education—a ministry explicitly responsible not only for testing but for curriculum content and even for the administration of schools. Parents with complaints about their children’s textbooks or teachers would have to take those complaints, not to their local school board, but to Washington. That scenario may seem far‐fetched: There is no clear evidence that the proponents of NCLB consciously intend to create a national curriculum or a European‐style ministry of education. But few of those who voted for the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was only a few dozen pages long, intended to start down a path leading to ever more detailed federal controls and culminating in the 1,100-page NCLB. Once Washington sets up such regulatory and spending machines, they tend to acquire a life and logic of their own. It seems not at all implausible that Congress may enact more sweeping centralization within the next decade—especially if an increasingly comfortable Republican majority grows ever more accustomed to bloating the Department of Education with “pork‐barrel” earmarks for its allies.
Optimists might suggest that such hyper‐centralization could bring back the educational standards of 1901, when the College Entrance Examination Board published a list of specific literary classics that it recommended that every college freshman should have read before matriculating. If education means requiring a youngster to learn things that he is unlikely to learn if left unsupervised, then perhaps centralized coercion is a good thing. But that argument ignores the crucial fact that curricular relativism and fragmentation have grown hand in hand with the growth of centralized power over education in both Washington and the state capitals. The people who control the key institutions of the government school establishment—the teachers’ unions, the teacher‐training institutions, the state education agencies, the career staff of the federal education colossus— are not Victorian‐style elitists seeking to mold the masses according to lofty standards of classical learning. Quite the opposite: In today’s America, the masses are more elitist (in the desirable sense of demanding serious academic standards) than the establishment with its quasi‐mystical cult of “equality.” When given a free hand, working‐class parents make sounder educational choices than the establishment tries to dictate to them. Consider the nearly total absence of destructive fads such as “bilingual education” in private schools, even when those schools have large minority enrollments.
Thus NCLB may end up giving us the worst possible scenario: unconstitutional consolidation in Washington of power over the schools, with that power being used to promote mediocrity rather than excellence. It is too early to know which scenario will prevail, but it is already clear that state and local education officials are skillfully protecting their interests in ways that undermine the intent of NCLB. Especially telling has been their widespread dishonest reporting in at least four areas: graduation rates, school violence, qualified teachers, and proficiency tests.
Covering Up Problems
About one‐third of students who enter high school fail to graduate. Under NCLB the states are supposed to provide detailed reports on graduation rates; without that information it is impossible to know whether increases in a school’s test score averages represent real improvement or merely an increase in the number of dropouts of youngsters who would have performed poorly if they had taken the tests. But the Education Trust has found that most states have significantly overstated their graduation rates. North Carolina, for example, claimed a graduation rate of 92.4 percent; an independent study found the true rate to be 63 percent. In response to such flouting of its own law, the federal Department of Education has been essentially passive.
Similarly, the state education agencies have found it easy to avoid providing honest reports about which schools are unsafe for students. Though NCLB ostensibly requires the states to identify those schools that are “persistently dangerous,” only three admit to having any such schools. The others want us to believe that the most dysfunctional, crime‐ridden parts of cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington do not have even one unsafe school. Whether or not the state bureaucrats actually believe that claim themselves, their federal counterparts have not publicly challenged it.
NCLB is also supposed to ensure that by 2006 all schoolchildren will have “highly qualified” teachers who have demonstrated competence in the subjects they teach. But the statute allows great leeway in the standards for measuring such competence, and many states have adopted standards so lax as to be meaningless. Maine, for example, allows teachers to substitute a huge range of supposed credentials for passing an objective test or university coursework equivalent to a major. They can earn “points” for attending a conference or workshop, serving as an after‐school tutor, being a “participant in a state or national stakeholders group”—or even for writing a grant proposal. A study by the National Council on Teacher Quality found that “only a handful of states appear willing to comply with the spirit of that portion of the law” that seeks to improve teacher quality.
The most important part of NCLB, its goal of 100 percent academic “proficiency” among America’s schoolchildren by the year 2014, is also the easiest to manipulate. The statute does not even define the word “proficiency,” though it appears hundreds of times. Under NCLB the states have manifold opportunities to “game the system.” They can use tests with questions that are too easy. They can lower the “cut score,” the number of questions that must be answered correctly to claim proficiency. They can switch tests every few years, creating the artificial appearance of short‐term gains. They can abuse statistical techniques such as “confidence intervals” by treating the most wildly optimistic interpretation of test results as definitive even if there is only a microscopic possibility that this interpretation is correct. They can fail to adopt rigorous procedures to prevent or detect cheating, as recently documented in Texas. In hopes that future lawmakers will relax NCLB, they can set their targets for “adequate yearly progress” in such a way that they commit themselves to only modest annual advances at the outset but to much faster progress as they near the 2014 deadline. Unfortunately, the first three years of NCLB have seen states using all of those tactics. As it becomes increasingly clear that the states can dumb down their standards without adverse consequences, there will likely be a “race to the bottom.”
The incentives for evading the truth will grow as NCLB’s annual targets get more ambitious. No future presidential administration will have the same stake in NCLB as the one that launched it; if the Bush administration has not been willing to withhold funds from states that fudge their numbers, why should future administrations be bolder? In theory the U.S. Department of Education could fine‐tune its handling of issues such as graduation rates. But such fine‐tuning will work only if the department is willing to exercise in full its powers under NCLB to reject state plans. It may even need to acquire additional powers—bringing still more centralization to a system already dysfunctionally over centralized. Moreover, the idea of an enlightened federal government forcing the states to do the right thing depends on the assumption that Washington is somehow immune to the interest‐group pressures that warp decision making within the state education agencies. That assumption is utterly unrealistic. As experience with other large federal programs has shown, such programs tend over the years to become even more complicated, internally contradictory, and captive to various lobbies with their own inconsistent objectives.
State‐level testing and accountability systems enacted before NCLB have tended over time, as Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute puts it, to drift from “tough” to “soft.” Standards are gradually relaxed as interest groups mobilize against them—especially when presidents and other elected officials are distracted by terrorism, war, and other unpredictable demands. Even if elected leaders remain undistracted, they have to deal with school officials endlessly ingenious at evading unwelcome standards. One thinks of the “Lake Wobegon effect” of the 1980s in which every one of the states was found to be claiming that its students’ test scores were above the average for all 50 states— a mathematical impossibility.
NCLB reflects an ideological strain that is novel for Republican presidents, utopianism. Like older forms of utopianism, the Bush administration emphasizes collective action rather than individual responsibility: NCLB implicitly treats students as passive commodities, mass‐produced by state programs. It also treats parents as unable to select good schools. In its plans for extending NCLB to high schools, the administration has yet to signal that it will even try to revive the choice provisions that were part of its original proposal.
Utopianism usually ends up transforming rhetoric more than reality. In the real world, the chance that not one child in America will fall short of “proficiency” within a decade is the same as the chance that not one child will be a juvenile delinquent: zero. By 2014 NCLB will be seen to have failed, just as the other centralized education programs enacted since the 1960s have failed. It will always be true that some of America’s tens of thousands of schools are excellent and some mediocre (or worse). Rather than continuing to use centralized government decrees to turn mediocre institutions into excellent ones, as they have been trying but failing to do for decades, the state and federal governments should be empowering individual families to transfer to schools of their own choice.
That strategy would bring three advantages that are absent from the command‐and‐control model embodied in NCLB. First, it would allow parents to rescue their children from dysfunctional schools immediately, rather than continue to wait for the public school establishment’s tinkerings with the status quo to produce the glorious results that have long been promised but never arrive. Second, it would allow families to pick schools that are compatible with their own philosophical and religious beliefs instead of locking them into zero‐sum conflicts to decide which groups win power to impose their beliefs on others. Third, it would unleash the dynamic force of competition. Real accountability to customers free to go elsewhere is qualitatively different from fake accountability to government agencies that can almost always be pressured into keeping the money flowing to schools that are manifestly failing.
The key locus for genuine reform is the states. Under the Constitution it is the states that have legal responsibility for education. The 18th‐century principles built into the country’s federalist design are better adapted to the challenges of the fast‐moving, downsizing, open‐ended 21st century than are the static, top‐heavy, homogeneous structures still left over from the mid‐20th century. The best contribution the national government can make is to get out of the way.