The Issue Left Behind
School reform, at any rate, is a complicated conversation to have. Educationese is famously impenetrable, and the specifics of No Child Left Behind are no exception. Bring up problems with "adequate yearly progress" and "confidence intervals" and "high objective uniform standard of evaluation" and even the most active PTA mom will zone out. And general public opinion on the law, and on testing, is not clear. A June survey by the Educational Testing Service showed that the share of parents who give US public schools a grade of "A" or "B" has dropped significantly from 2001, from 43 percent to 22 percent. Perhaps they don't like what the law has done to the schools, or perhaps the law helped illuminate the schools' faults. Or maybe it has nothing to do with No Child Left Behind at all. After all, the public is split evenly on whether the law is a good one, and one in five people, according to a recent survey, say they do not know enough about it to form an opinion.
And how will they ever? The media dutifully report the scores and adopt the terminology and message of the reform movement, with little critical perspective. Teachers and principals have not let parents know what has changed, and what is being lost, in their children's schooling. When I spent last May at a Montgomery County, Maryland, elementary school, most parents didn't know, for example, that their third-graders had done one science experiment all year because they were cramming in reading. While educators are supposed to teach students to question and think critically, they are not encouraged to do the same.
"I have worked so hard to get teachers to speak out," said Susan Ohanian, a teacher and activist against the standards movement and coauthor of Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? "They are so frightened, and I think unreasonably so." (One teacher I met at the Maryland school didn't think her newfound fear was unreasonable: After she had written the school board complaining that a "scientifically based" reading curriculum would crowd out a popular bilingual program, the community superintendent--her boss's boss--scolded her for doing so.)
Paige said last month that when it comes to determining whether No Child Left Behind is working, "the debate is over," and even some of the law's harshest opponents reluctantly concede that because its foundations are so entrenched, the secretary might be right. But Bruce Hunter of the superintendents association suggests that not only is the debate ongoing, it will get very loud, very soon. He calls the brewing revolt a "slow-motion insurrection."
"The academic community is willing to come out of hiding and fess up in public," he said. "The whole idea of standards-based reform," he said, "is going to be questioned."
Republicans who disagree with the federal intrusion into education, who have said they're waiting to complain until after the election, will likely speak up. The Government Accountability Office last month called on the Education Department to clean up its sloppy guidance and oversight on No Child Left Behind. Local politicians who are being blamed for decisions made in Washington as the law's realities come clear will be heard from as well. Few schools have yet suffered from the law's many sanctions, such as potential state or private takeover and teaching staffs being disbanded, which kick in after a few years, but with the test-score targets increasing every year, they will--even the wealthy ones. "People haven't really felt the impact of the challenges of implementing the laws yet," said Reginald Felton, a lobbyist with the National School Boards Association. "Only with more and more real-life stories and problems will there be significant change."
Still, the political momentum remains on the side of No Child Left Behind. However underfunded the law may be, the money it does offer gives the Feds financial leverage over disgruntled and cash-strapped states. States that originally introduced bills to reject No Child Left Behind have been visited by Education Department representatives. They remind lawmakers that opting out means losing federal money, on average 7 percent of education funding, and they often work with the states to tweak the rules to suit them. In every case, lawmakers backed off their threats.
Take Utah, for example. "Utahans are pretty well coalesced in their concerns about No Child Left Behind," said Superintendent Harrington. But $107 million, she said, "is a loss we couldn't bear."