Was 'No Child Left Behind' Based on Faulty Data?
Democrats are having a field day criticizing the Republicans for the federal
education legislation, "No Child Left Behind." But is it really the fault of
the GOP? Or is this a nonpartisan, equal-opportunity boondoggle, like so many
Both parties bear equal blame for
the intrusion of the federal government into public education, and yes, that
intrusion does appear to be based on data that, if not actually faulty, was
subjected to politicized "spin."
Twenty-five years ago, the federal
government issued a controversial report, "A Nation at Risk: The
Imperative for Educational Reform." It launched the school reform movement
and billions of dollars of new federal education spending, amid some pretty
strong, accusative language that American schools were failing and falling
behind those of other countries.
The report, published by an
18-member panel under former U.S. Education Secretary Terrel Bell, linked so-so
or poor schools to a future American economy which would also, by definition,
be so-so or poor.
The report warned of "a rising tide
of mediocrity" in education that threatened to swamp all boats.
The solutions sounded good on the
surface: put in place tough, new academic standards, and improve teacher
quality. While the goals of many people weren't met by those changes, the
report did result in some pretty major reforms and new systems in K-12
What did people want to change as a
result of the report, but didn't change? A lot of people wanted to do away with
the U.S. Department of Education as unconstitutional, over-meddling and the
cause of a lot of the inefficiencies and overspending in education. Without a
federal regulatory agency, all decision-making would be driven down to the
level of state educational governance and local school boards, which was almost
universally seen as a benefit.
However, that didn't happen, and
indeed, today, we are spending even more money on the U.S. Department of
Education and other federal education interventions than before, by a long
Some conservatives also were
disappointed because the report and its many consequences didn't bring about
more competition in U.S. education, or innovations in the way schools are
funded that would presumably lead to classroom innovations that would pay off
Liberals said the report was a
back-door way to get schools privatized and hurt the national teachers' unions.
Still others of both political stripes said many of the report's conclusions
and recommendations were based on inaccurate data and hazy reasoning.
However, in 1989, then-President
George Bush, aided by future President Bill Clinton, then the governor of
Arkansas, gathered all the nation's governors in Charlottesville, Va., for the
first National Education Summit. Out of that meeting came the standardization
of education movement that culminated in Goals 2000.
By "standardization" is meant that
across the country, all fifth-graders would essentially be taught the same
standard material for core subjects such as English, math and science. The
standards were gradually boilerplated by state education departments across the
country, resulting in today's de facto nationalized curriculum, with similar or
identical learning standards by grade level coast to coast.
But before that happened, in 1994, President
Clinton signed Goals 2000: Educate America Act. Most everyone agrees that it
was the vehicle through which the standardization and nationalization of
By the following year, though, respected educational professors,
researchers and authors David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle published a book critical
of Goals 2000, called The Manufactured
Crisis, in which they contended that the data in the "A Nation at Risk"
report exaggerated what was wrong with the nation's schools, and minimized what
was right with them.
Berliner and Biddle contended that
test scores were not falling as much as the report stated. They said the reason
illiteracy seemed to be on the rise is that so many immigrants had come into
public schools with lagging academic skills, and their test scores were counted
among native-born kids'. They sought to show that poverty was the main cause of
underachievement, and that additional funding for schools to combat the
consequences of poverty would do a lot more to help kids than standards and
regulations. However, they acknowledged that when the economy is stagnant,
support for more spending for schools dries up quickly, since taxpayers already
So, even though they contended that
"A Nation At Risk" was based on false pretenses and "spin," and the nation
might not have been so much at risk as the public was led to believe, still,
for many reasons, they agreed that public schools were in a financial no-win
situation at the turn of the century into which it was easy to institute
federalized school reforms, unwanted or not.
Despite the debate that still rages
today, in 2001, President George W. Bush signed the federal education legislation,
No Child Left Behind. It was basically the Republican administration's continuation
of the Democratic administration's Goals 2000, with the major addition of
"high-stakes" assessment - if too many children "failed" the assessments the
government ordered, then their schools could be closed.
though it is outdated now, the 1995 book, The
Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools
by David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle is still readily available from used
book sources, and is well worth the read.