In this critique I will focus on three fundamental problems with the law: underfunding, testing, and school improvement. (Several others, like the provisions on improving teacher quality and on promoting "scientific" approaches to reading also deserve attention, but are beyond the scope of this article.)
Underfunding . NCLB's unfunded mandate to eliminate all test-score gaps in 12 years assumes that schools by themselves can overcome the educational consequences of poverty and racism. Not only has the federal government failed to meet the social, economic, and health-related needs of many children, but NCLB itself does not authorize nearly enough funding to meet its new requirements. The Bush administration has sought almost no increase in ESEA expenditures for the coming year. The current education appropriations bill before Congress would underfund the already inadequate authorized spending levels by $8 billion. Meanwhile, states are suffering their worst budget crises since World War II and cutting education as well as the social programs needed by low-income people.
Testing . The one-size-fits-all assessment requirements-annual testing in reading and math and periodic testing in science-and the accountability provisions attached to them are rigid, harmful, and ultimately unworkable. They will promote bad educational practices and deform curricula in significant ways. In the end, they will lower, not raise, standards for most students. For example, the assessment requirements will lead to further devaluing of non-tested subjects like social studies, music, and art. NCLB focuses on large-scale testing, which is a poor tool for diagnosing individual students' needs and for assessing higher-order learning. The provisions of the law are turning large numbers of schools, particularly those serving low-income children, into test-prep programs. The testing regime punishes the teachers who choose to work in the nation's most under-resourced schools and fosters the inaccurate view that most of the nation's public schools are failing. In the end, NCLB will enforce lower standards, not high quality learning.
School improvement. Estimates by groups such as the National Conference of State Legislators suggest some 70 percent of the nation's schools will be declared "in need of improvement" before the decade is over and thus be subject to escalating sanctions. Florida reported that 87 percent of its schools and all of its districts failed to make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) in 2002-03. NCLB's punitive test-and-label approach to accountability is the foundation for an equally ineffective approach to school improvement. The first step toward improving schools, according to NCLB, is to allow parents to transfer their children to a school with higher test scores. But it does not guarantee that classroom seats will be available. In Chicago, 240,000 students are in schools "in need of improvement," but the district says it has only 1035 spaces. In part, this is because a majority of Chicago schools are not making AYP. In districts where some schools are labeled "failing" and some are not, the new law may force increased class sizes by transferring students without creating new capacity. The Bush administration has said overcrowding does not matter. NCLB does not invest in building new schools in failing districts, nor does it make rich districts open their doors to students from poor districts. The transfer regulations are designed to manufacture a demand for alternative school placements and ultimately to transfer funds and students to profit-making private school corporations through vouchers. For those left behind, the next step is to "reconstitute" the school. Among the list of options in the law are to turn it into a charter school or privatize its management. These marketplace "solutions" to the difficult and complex problems of schooling will not improve the public school system, but may lead to dismantling it.
A New NCLB
Any response to the punitive nature of the NCLB must be balanced by recognition that there is a genuine need for helpful school accountability, particularly for those schools that serve communities of color and economically disenfranchised families. Opposition to NCLB doesn't mean opposing any and all forms of accountability. Rather, the law should be used to advocate for a way to develop genuine accountability that supports improved student learning and schools.