Why won’t Congress admit NCLB failed? By Monty Neill


The 2010 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll on U.S. schools reminds us that Americans do not believe that the federal No Child Left law helps improve education. The 2008 Kappa survey found that four out of five people think classroom-based evidence of student learning, such as grades, teacher observations, or samples of student work (the most popular), provides a more accurate picture of student work than do student test scores.

The United States is virtually alone among nations in testing in so many grades. Top-ranked Finland barely tests at all, while Singapore tests in a few grades. That’s the range among nations with better results than the U.S. on international exams, graduation rates, and increasingly college entry and completion.

Research shows that NCLB causes curriculum narrowing, intense teaching to the test, and worsening school climate. The rate of progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress has declined since the law was implemented, while it’s clear now that scores on state tests are greatly inflated. Testing even more with slightly different exams, which the federally-funded state testing consortia aim to do, is not a solution.

But the real issue is Congress’ reluctance to rethink its assumptions.

Why is Congress so unwilling to recognize the research and public opinion, and overhaul the most basic fact of NCLB: Its reliance on standardized tests to judge and control schools, and if President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have their way, teachers as well?

Why won’t Congress recognize that high-stakes testing has failed, and move in new directions?

Certainly not all members of Congress think alike, but here are some key factors behind the unwillingness to change:

Most important, the de facto alliance among corporate groups such as the Business Roundtable, a growing list of high-tech and hedge-fund billionaires, a few large foundations (Gates, Broad and Walton among them), Duncan’s Education Department, and major national media has spent tens of millions of dollars and used extensive networks to promote their ideas.

They have created the new status quo of test-based accountability and increasing privatization, which they promote as “reform” even though it doesn’t work.

Second, too many students are not getting a good enough education, and these students are overwhelmingly poor, of color, speak English as a second language, or have a disability. The victims of the policies that produced this situation demand change.

The choice, however, was never between do nothing or focus on high-stakes testing. Better options have always existed. But these have been under-financed, not supported by the most visible and wealthy sectors in society. They also are more complex, not simplistic like tests, making them harder to sell with sound bites – as if the mind and learning were simple!

Testing is a cheap “fix.” Genuinely improving schools and teaching, and overcoming the poverty and segregation that are still the most significant factors in student outcomes, are expensive, complex and politically difficult. Too many members of Congress – and their state counterparts – are willing to accept the cheap way out, even if it is no solution at all.

If you believe NCLB’s approach is not working, you are in good company. Voters are beginning to reject educational ‘deform,’ the defeat in the D.C. Democratic primary of Mayor Adrian Fenty, who installed Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, being the most visible. Your voice is essential to making Congress respect the will of the people, not the will of the elites promoting the failed policies of high-stakes testing.