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Overhauling NCLB

By Monty Neill

For a mobilized constituency to persuade Congress to pass a beneficial education law, it is vital to consider the thinking that underlay passage of NCLB in order to demonstrate that NCLB is not meeting its own goals. (After all, the main stated NCLB goal is a good one: "Ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education.") It is also necessary to grasp the varying views of NCLB supporters in order to respond, where possible, to their needs, or to counter and isolate proposals that are harmful. (Among other things, proposals to expand testing, intensify sanctions, develop a national test, and promote privatization are likely.)

Two prominent, pro-NCLB conservative analysts, Frederick Hess and Michael Petrilli, have argued that since the late 1980s, presidents (Clinton and both Bushes) and Congress have forged a "Washington consensus" that revolves around three agreements:

First, that the nation's foremost education objective should be closing racial and economic achievement gaps. Second, that excellent schools can overcome the challenges of poverty. And third, that external pressure and tough accountability are critical components of helping school systems improve.

This "consensus" sidesteps some major issues such as privatization while ignoring the harmful educational consequences of cheap, test-driven "reform" and ever-more-distant bureaucratic control over schools. However, because this consensus does exist in part, it is a useful tool for thinking about the "bipartisan" agreement supporting NLCB.

Hess and Petrilli argue that despite some strong opposition and very thin support among the public and especially among educators, this consensus is likely to hold in Congress. But they also worry that the consensus could fall apart: Bush is weakening, and Republi-can Congressional leadership has changed while the most conservative Republicans are balking at the intrusiveness of the law as well as its funding requirements. They conclude that the law's survival may depend on Demo-crats, especially Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. George Miller, who helped craft NCLB and remain as party leaders of the relevant committees.

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