The No Child Left Behind Hoax

Inequality and ‘information gaps’


       Unfortunately so far the public has only a vague idea of any of this. A Gallup poll conducted this summer found that 76% of those surveyed knew “very little” or “nothing” about the new law. The poll director told Education Week that “It is an uninformed public on No Child Left Behind.”11


       Not surprisingly, a large majority of those polled agreed with the rhetorical goals of the legislation. Again, who would oppose a federal pledge to “Leave No Child Behind”? Over seventy percent also said it was very important to close achievement gaps between students from different racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds.


       But according to Education Week, when they were told about the actual testing and accountability provisions of the law, “the public disagreed with some of the core elements…”


       For example, under AYP the only thing that counts is the number of students who score above the passing level on the state test. So on a test like New Jersey’s High School Proficiency Assessment, where a passing score is 200, helping a bilingual, special education student from a low income household raise his/her test score from, say, a 50 to 199 counts for nothing, and in fact counts as a failure in four different subgroups. Moving a student from 199 to 200 is success.


       According to the Gallup poll, when the public is given these kinds of details, people opposed such practices. Eight-four percent said “a better way to judge the job a public school is doing would be to determine whether students show ‘reasonable improvement from where they started.’ Sixty-six percent, also said a single statewide test would not provide a fair picture of whether a public school is in need of improvement.”12


       In other words, the public broadly supports the idea that federal policy should help reduce inequality in education, but is largely uninformed about how NCLB purports to do this. We need to let them know.


       But this “information gap” between public support for reducing educational inequality and widespread ignorance about the specific impact NCLB will have on schools is a reflection of a much deeper contradiction at the heart of the new law.


       The new federal law imposes a mandate on schools that is imposed on no other institution in society. Imagine a federal law that declared that 100% of all citizens must have adequate health care in twelve years or sanctions will be imposed on doctors and hospitals. Or all crime must be eliminated in twelve years or the local police department will face privatization.


       The political agenda that produced NCLB ignores—or even promotes—inequality in virtually every area of society. Politicians like President Bush posture about the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” But the real measure of their concern is what they propose to do about such inequality, not only in schools, but in society at large, and here the record leaves little room for doubt: inequality is as American as processed apple pie.


       Take, for example, income inequality among some of the same groups NCLB says must reach 100% test score equality within 12 years. Lots of research has established a strong link between student performance on standardized tests and family income. And while income inequality in a community is no excuse for school failure, certainly any serious federal plan to close the achievement gap in schools needs to concern itself with trends in closely related areas like the resources that families and schools have to work with.


       But a look at data on income inequality—especially through the prism of AYP—reveals the hypocrisy at the heart of the NCLB legislation. In 1991 the median household income for black families was about 58% of white income, Hispanic income was about 70%.13 If we applied the “logic” of AYP to this key measure of how our economy works, income gaps for blacks would need to narrow by 3.5% each year to pull even within twelve years, the same time frame schools have been given to equalize tests scores. Hispanics, starting with a smaller gap, would have had to close the gap by 2.5% annually.


       If you compare this to how the economy actually performed between 1991 and 2002, a period of supposedly unprecedented economic boom and growth, you’ll find the U.S. economy would not have met its AYP targets for income inequality for any year for either group. At the end of twelve years, the gap between black and white income had narrowed only a pitiful 3.7%; for Hispanics the gap was just .4% less than it was in 1991.


       If we lived in an alternate universe where income equality really was a goal of federal economic policy and an NCLB-like system of sanctions put pressure on the titans of industry and commerce to attain such a lofty goal, what do you think might be appropriate remedies for such a dismal performance: “corrective action” to borrow the language of NCLB sanctions? Economic “restructuring? “Reconstitution” of our major corporations? How about “state takeover?”


       The point, of course, is that there is no relevant area of social policy, from household income to child poverty rates to health care coverage to school spending, where federal policy currently mandates equality among all population groups within twelve years under threat of sanctions—except standardized test scores in public schools. If this sounds unfair and absurd, it’s because it is. It’s a plan to use achievement gaps to label schools as failures, without providing the support, resources and strategies needed to overcome them.


Funding implications


       Let’s look closer at the issue of funding. The media has been filled with complaints by Democrats who voted for NCLB that the Bush Administration has not provided full funding for the law. And it’s true that the Administration’s current budget calls for about $12 billion in funding instead of the $18 billion that Congress originally authorized.14


       But both these figures are light years away from what it would take to realize the promises NCLB makes, even on its own narrow test score terms. William Mathis is a superintendent of schools in Vermont and a professor of education finance at the University of Vermont. He did a study of what it would cost to reach the NCLB mandates. He explained that there are a variety of methods school finance experts use to estimate such costs, like the “professional judgment” method which uses panels of experts to define the resources each child needs to meet a state’s standards and then adds them up to arrive at a state figure. Or the “successful school” method that identifies a set of high-achieving schools, examines their spending levels, and generalizes to other schools. There are other formulas too.


       Mathis did a study of ten states and what it would cost for every child to meet the state proficiency standards. And he came up with what he called a conservative figure of between $85 billion and $148 billion additional dollars each year above current school spending levels, an annual increase of between 20% and 35%. So far, the much touted increase in federal spending accompanying NCLB represents about a 1% increase over current school spending.15 This is one reason the National Education Association is trying to bring a court suit to force a suspension of NCLB sanctions as an unfunded mandate from Washington.


       This is also why some states like New Hampshire are doing cost/benefit analyses to see if even makes sense to keep taking federal money. The New Hampshire School Administrators Association estimated that the state will receive about $77 in new federal money for each student, while the obligations imposed by the law will cost at least $575 per student.16 This in a law that actually includes a provision declaring that states do not have “to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this Act.”17


       One possible strategy to educate the public about the yawning gap between the promises and resources associated with this law is to ask the school funding experts in each state to do a similar study, and to go further and calculate what the impact would be if money poured into the development of standards and tests were instead used on things like class size reduction or school-based professional development.


Transfers and Teacher Quality 


       Let me touch briefly on just a few other issues. The privatization agenda in NCLB is reflected most clearly in the provisions for school transfers and supplemental services. A straightforward voucher program was taken out of the original proposal as part of the legislative compromise that got it passed. Instead we have provisions that require a district to spend up to 20% of its federal funds to support transfers from failing schools to schools that meet their AYP targets or that don’t receive Title I funds. And each state is supposed to prepare a list of approved supplemental tutorial providers for students who remain in schools needing improvement. Both the transfer and the tutorial provisions have lots of complications, but there will be three overall effects:


1.      The 20% figure will come nowhere near to covering the costs of providing transportation and tutorial services to all those eligible for them.


2.      There are nowhere near enough alternative school placements for the growing numbers of students eligible to transfer.


3.      The funds used to support individual tutorial services and transfers will reduce the funds available for whole school improvement in those same schools.


NCLB does not invest in building new schools in failing districts or in building new capacity in receiving schools. It doesn’t provide any support for receiving schools to handle an influx of students, especially ones with a history of educational struggles. It doesn’t make rich districts open their doors to students from poor districts. A relatively few parents may get additional school choices for their children in districts where open seats exist. But the main impact will be to artificially manufacture a demand for transfers that are not available and that instead can be channeled into new voucher schemes that will ultimately move funds and students to profit-making private school corporations.


       This is clearly the intent of some NCLB sponsors. Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, predicted that the regulations would produce “constructive chaos” that could lead to “more supply.”18 So far the “more supply” is another unfulfilled NCLB promise, but the chaos is already building.


       This year Chicago identified 1,035 slots for the 240,000 students attending schools on the failing list.19 Last year in Washington, DC, 15,000 parents were notified of their right to transfer into 240 available spaces.20 Baltimore had 83 failing schools with 30,000 students and 11 receiving schools with fewer than 200 open seats.21


       On the other hand New York City, with a new Republican mayor supportive of vouchers, has gone further than many other school systems in following the transfer rules. Officials said no transfer requests were rejected. And although the 8,000 students who did choose to transfer were only a small part of the roughly 300,000 who were eligible, those 8,000 transfers have caused widespread chaos in city schools this fall. One small school principal described how class size rose from the low 20s to over 30, adding, “We’ve had more fighting in one month than we did all last year. And there’s no extra resources. It destroys morale.”22


       I don’t know the exact situation here in Portland, but I understand that Portland has been promoting transfers and has been running into some of the predictable problems. This variation in how far local and state officials are willing to go in implementing some of the most potentially harmful NCLB mandates is another pressure point worth discussing when we get to considering resistance strategies.


       Finally, a few words about the teacher quality provisions of NCLB. Just as with the academic achievement gap, NCLB offers dubious remedies for real problems. The fact that large numbers of teachers are under prepared or poorly prepared for their teaching assignments, and that this is disproportionately true of schools in the poorest areas, is a real problem. The quality of teaching and instruction is probably the single most important variable in student academic progress and, unlike some other factors, this is one variable that schools and districts can potentially have a large impact on.


       But the “highly qualified teacher” provisions of NCLB don’t measure the quality of teaching, they track credentials, and the link between formal credentials and classroom effectiveness has always been a problematic one. NCLB substitutes new federal regulations for existing state rules and does so in an arbitrary fashion that is having an especially negative impact on middle school teachers, special education teachers, and teachers in small and rural districts. The new regulations usually measure college credits or the scores received on a content area test, and they require teachers to have separate subject area certifications, when previously more general credentials, like a K-8 certificate or a special education certificate, were acceptable. The new rules often don’t credit classroom experience or even consider classroom performance. And they don’t provide the resources districts need to attract more people to teaching careers or to hire teachers in shortage areas.


       It’s all part of the bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all plan of NCLB schooling. And the letters that have started going home to parents saying certain teachers aren’t qualified seem primarily designed­â€”as so much of this law is—to demoralize teachers and to increase antagonism between teachers and parents. States are required to notify parents about teachers who fall short of the new regulations and to create elaborate data systems for tracking teacher credentials, But they are not similarly mandated to help teachers meet the new credential requirements. It’s also ironic that the same law which purports to assure that every student has a “high quality teacher” is in fact imposing a testing regime that deskills teachers and degrades classroom practice in a variety of ways that contribute to educational failure instead of reversing it. There is nothing high quality about NCLB.


Prospects for NCLB Reform


       Unfortunately there is no getting away from how bad this law is. NCLB is now a time bomb ticking at the heart of public education and threatening massive damage from multiple directions. But for all its horrors, there are still lots of reasons to believe that it can be effectively opposed or modified before it’s too late.


       Tomorrow, I understand that there will be a strategy session about how we can respond to the attack on our schools that NCLB represents. I hope many of you will be able to participate in that where we can get into the possibilities of resistance and response more thoroughly.


       But I want to close here with a few words about where there may be openings to start building the kind of political pressure that will be needed to force changes.


       I think we need to start by acknowledging that there’s a big difference between mobilizing people to press for changes in the NCLB legislation and mobilizing people to support a real alternative vision of school improvement that is ultimately tied to educational and social justice. It’s a little like the difference between mobilizing opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq and pursuing the long term social changes need to fundamentally transform U.S. foreign policy. Both are important efforts that need to go forward, but they involve a different sets of tasks and strategies.


       As uninformed as the public is on NCLB, the potential for getting its support to reform or repeal this law is substantial. The more the public knows about the details of this law, the more they will oppose it. Most people are not in favor of federal control of local schools, especially around issues of curriculum and instruction and especially when the feds only supply 7% of school funding. And while people hold this position for a lot of very different reasons, they can be tactically united against this particular version of bone-headed Washington interference in state and local affairs. And this can give a lot of cover for local, state, and Congressional politicians to oppose, in this case, the long reach of Washington into local schoolrooms.


       We can also capitalize on variations in local and state implementation These may provide openings to modify the negative impact of NCLB. For example, many states are in various stages of non-compliance or passive resistance to key NCLB mandates. The superintendent of schools in Los Angeles has called the law’s AYP standard a “bad system” and told his administration to ignore its “arbitrariness.”23 In Chicago, officials refused to implement some of the transfer provisions declaring, “If this law was going to cause overcrowding, we were not going to do it.”24 In Alabama, the State Board of Education passed a resolution to ignore the notification provisions for teacher quality for the upcoming year.25


       Some of this may be bureaucratic inertia, rather than principled resistance. But we need to monitor the decisions that states and districts make in implementing NCLB provisions and, wherever possible, put pressure on officials to consider options that minimize or avoid the damage.


       We need to document publicly NCLB’s unfunded costs and its counterproductive expenditures, while proposing alternative spending plans.


       In Congress there are already ten bills that have been introduced to modify or repeal parts of NCLB. Summaries can be found at the FairTest web site (www.fairtest.org). They include a moratorium on NCLB’s testing mandates, measures to suspend the sanctions in any year that full funding is not provided, proposals to change the testing rules to give schools credit for making relative progress over time, and similar measures. We should determine the best of these bills and then publicly press state and national officials to support them.


       Both large teacher unions will be working for NCLB reform, though there are significant differences between them. It’s also useful to press state and local union affiliates to put some energy into educating the public about NCLB and lobbying local officials to support changes in it.


       Over the next year, there will also begin regional and national conversations among education advocates, including groups like FairTest and Rethinking Schools, that will try to find common ground with those who are concerned about not just killing NCLB, but replacing it with a law that really can provide some desperately needed support for real school improvement strategies, strategies that are not test-driven, not one-size fits all, but that provide a credible basis for tackling the enormously complicated and difficult issues of educational inequality, school accountability, and school improvement. Ultimately it is not enough just to force NCLB off the tracks, because the coming train wreck is, in part, exactly what the free market school crusaders are hoping for. As one observer put it, “NCLB is not the answer to a crisis in public education. NCLB is a tool for creating crisis.”26 We need another tool kit.


       And finally, as usual, the most important organizing will be local, done by teachers and education activists in schools and local communities, and especially in hard dialogues between teachers, parents, and community members who need to find ways to stand together in support of kids and schools as this law tries to pull us apart. We need NCLB truth squads, fact sheets, letters to the editor, radio call-in campaigns, public hearings about the impact the law is having, community-parent forums: the whole gamut of democratic activity. As usual it’s the only thing that will save us, and I thank you for inviting me to be part of that today.





1 “Senate Approves a Bill to Expand the Federal Role in Public Education,”

Diana Jean Schemo, New York Times, Dec. 19, 2001.

2 “NCLB: Don’t Mourn, Organize,” Monty Neill, Rethinking Schools, Fall, 2003.

3 Multiple Choices: How Will States Fill in the Blanks in their Testing Systems? Matthew Gandal, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, February, 2002.

4 Can Failing Schools be Fixed? Ronald. C. Brady, published by Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, Washington, D.C. January 2003.

5 See “No Child Left Behind: Costs and Benefits, William Mathis, Kappan, May, 2003.

6 State Reports on Progress Vary Widely, Erik W. Robelen, Education Week, September 3, 2003.

7 Mathis, Kappan, May, 2003.

8 “States Cut Test Standards to Avoid Sanctions,” Sam Dillon, New York Times, May 22, 2003.

9 Dillon, NYT, May 22, 2003.

10 Dillon, NYT, May 22, 2003.

11 “Public Ignorant of ‘No Child’ Law, Poll Finds,” John Gehring, Education Week, Sept. 3, 2003.

12 Gehring, Education Week, Sept. 3, 2003.

13 U.S. Census Bureau, Historical Income Tables – Households.

14 “On Front Lines, Casualties,” Michael Winerip, New York Times, September 24, 2003.

15 Mathis, Kappan, May, 2003.

16 Mathis, Kappan, May, 2003.

17 Title IX, Part E, Subpart 2, Sec. 9527 of the No Child Left Behind Act, see also “New Federal Education Law Strains State Coffers,” Associated Press, Friday, April 18, 2003.

18 “New Federal Rule Tightens Demands on Failing Schools,” Diana Jean Schemo, New York Times, November 27, 2002.

19 “Only 1,035 spaces open for city school transfers,” Lori Olszewski and Stephanie Banchero, Chicago Tribune, August 16, 2003.

20 “The accountability trap: How ‘No Child Left Behind’ creates crises in public schools,” Danny Rose, www.onlinejournal.com, August 2, 2003.

21 “Slow starts, false starts abound across country,” Alexander Russo, Catalyst, September, 2002.

22 “In ‘No Child Left Behind,’ a Problem With the Math,” Michael Winerip, October 1, 2003.

23 Winerip, New York Times, October 1, 2003.

24 Winerip, Oct. 1, 2003.

25 “In Need of Improvement: Ten Ways the U.S. Department of Education Has Failed to Live Up to Its Teacher Quality Commitments,” Education Trust, Sept. 3, 2003.

26 Rose, www.onlinejournal.com, August 2, 2003.



Stan Karp can be reached at [email protected].


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