Ask any educator about the No Child Left Behind Act and first you’ll probably hear, “I agree with what the law is trying to do,” because who doesn’t want children–all children–to learn more? Then, however, you usually hear a glum “but,” followed by a long list of troubles with the law, passed by an enthusiastic, bipartisan Congress in 2001. When the Harvard Civil Rights Project conducted a survey in Virginia and California about the “but” this spring, they found teachers far more likely to say the law is damaging instruction and driving educators out than they are to say it is helping kids.
In May, two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s superintendents signed a statement protesting the law’s rigidity, and seven in ten Connecticut superintendents said the law’s sanctions harm struggling schools instead of helping them, according to a survey released last week. National organizations, such as the National Council of Teachers of English and the NAACP, echo the concerns. State legislators have not been shy in expressing opposition either, and both Democrats and Republicans in Washington, even those in the Bush Administration, privately acknowledge serious apprehensions. “I’ve never seen this kind of consensus,” said Bruce Hunter, director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators.
How is it, then, that the man who signed the law has managed to cast himself as the Education President? And why has his Democratic challenger, John Kerry, been unable to wrest that mantle away from him?
“There seems to have been an opportunity to draw discontent that hasn’t been fully exploited,” is how Governor Mark Warner of Virginia, a Democrat and former chair of the Education Commission of the States, puts it. “I think there was probably more of an expectation earlier in the year that education would play a bigger role in the national campaigns.”
The truth is that Bush and Kerry express no vast divergence on the fundamental elements of No Child Left Behind, the most comprehensive school reform in decades, which stemmed from the already growing “standards” movement and which Kerry called “groundbreaking” at the time Bush signed it. Kerry has not challenged the fundamentals of the law: that teacher qualifications should be judged by strict rules, that only academic programs and methods that have been scientifically researched should be promoted and that schools should be judged by ever-increasing test-score targets and face consequences for continuing to miss them. The candidate’s education agenda includes such uncontroversial measures as teacher recruitment and dropout reduction, but when it comes to No Child Left Behind, Kerry mainly just charges that Bush ought to have provided the full funding that he promised.
Last month a coalition that includes the National Education Association, MoveOn.org and the Campaign for America’s Future conducted a massive mobilization, in which people at nearly 4,000 “house parties” across the country gathered to call on Congress to increase school funding and in general begin to speak up on national education issues. But Bush still has control of the topic. His themes of “standards” and accountability” resonate with Americans who have heard, ad nauseam yet with only flimsy documentation, about how their country’s public schools are failing. A message of change is appealing, particularly a message that says we’re not going to neglect poor and minority children anymore. (Never mind that the most impressive test-score increases and dropout-rate decreases of the “Houston miracle,” part of the Texas reforms on which No Child Left Behind is based and that propelled Rod Paige to the job of Education Secretary, were largely a sham, accomplished by keeping bad students from taking the test or shooing them out the door altogether.)