Fifty years ago, Congress passed a federal education law to help poor children get a good public education: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. Revised many times, it is still the basis for federal education policy today. When it was last reauthorized in 2001, it was named “No Child Left Behind,” which was President George W. Bush’s signature education initiative. Both the House and the Senate are now debating a reauthorization of the law, which has been pending since 2007. Since the law gives Congress the power to determine how federal dollars will be spent, it is crucial to understand its origins and how it has evolved over time. Much is at stake.
ESEA was originally conceived as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty.” It had one overriding purpose: to send federal funding to schools that enrolled large numbers of children living in poverty. The schools that stood to benefit most were mainly in the South and in big cities.
Advocates of federal aid to public schools had been trying without success to persuade Congress to approve it since the 1870s. Their efforts consistently failed because neither party trusted the other to control the nation’s schools. Over the years, there were other complicating issues: Southern members of Congress (all of whom were white) feared that federal aid might be used to interfere with racially segregated schools; urban members of Congress opposed federal aid unless it also served children in Catholic schools; and in the mid-twentieth century, far-right conservatives suspected that the federal bureaucracy might push Communist ideas into school curriculums.
President Johnson was a master persuader, and he assuaged everyone’s concerns. The purpose of the law, he insisted, was to help poor children get a better education, and everyone could agree on that. The South could no longer preserve its segregated system, not only because of the Brown decision of 1954, but because Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, giving the federal government the power it needed to demand desegregation of southern schools. Catholics were mollified because they were included in ESEA’s funding (a Supreme Court decision later removed them). And by 1965, the Red Scare had subsided and was no longer an obstacle to federal aid to education. The bill was funded with $1 billion, and the federal government was at last committed to policies aimed at providing minorities and the poor with the same quality of education as everyone else. That funding, however, was far from sufficient, because public schools are typically underwritten by property taxes, which favor those who live in affluent areas.
Over the years, federal education funding for poor children has steadily grown but has never been enough to overcome the vast inequities between rich and poor. The United States is one of the few advanced nations in the world that spends more public money on rich children than on poor children.
With the passage of time, new federal programs were added to ESEA, such as funding for bilingual education, anti-drug programs, and charter schools. But the major shift in its purpose occurred in 1994, when the Clinton administration renamed it the Improving America’s Schools Act and required states to write academic standards and develop state tests for at least reading and mathematics. This was the first codification in federal law of the idea that uniform standards and testing were necessary to insure equal access to education.
Seven years later, when Congress again reauthorized the ESEA, and the Bush administration renamed it No Child Left Behind (NCLB), President George W. Bush and his advisors touted what was known at the time as “the Texas miracle.” (This was subsequently discredited as campaign overstatement.) The Bush team claimed that the mere act of testing children every year and publishing the results created an incentive for teachers and students to produce higher test scores and better graduation rates. The new federal law became a mandate for annual testing of all children in grades 3 to 8 in reading and mathematics; states could use their own tests, but schools had to improve their passing rates every year or face increasingly onerous sanctions.
NCLB decisively changed the purpose of the law. What had once been a means of sending additional resources to schools enrolling poor students was turned into a testing mandate. By law, all students, regardless of disability or language proficiency, must be “proficient” on state tests by 2014. Congress and the Bush administration believed that their mandate could produce universal success in school, akin to passing a law proclaiming that all crime should cease by a date certain. Note to Congress: if wishes (or congressional mandates) were horses, then beggars would ride.
Not surprisingly, it didn’t work. Very few schools reached 100 percent proficiency, and the nation’s entire public education system “failed,” by the law’s definition. Had the law been followed to the letter, almost every public school by now would be closed or handed over to private management. NCLB was chaos by design. It was a giant death star for public education.
President Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan, offered waivers to allow states to avoid some of the dire consequences of the law, but states had to accept his conditions if they wanted them. He demanded more upheaval, more chaos. They had to agree to open more charter schools, to evaluate teachers to a significant degree by the test scores of their students, and to take drastic action to change low-performing schools (like closing the school, privatizing it, or firing the entire staff). None of these “remedies” was supported by research or experience, but almost every state eagerly sought a waiver. When Washington State refused to judge its teachers by test scores (a practice decisively refuted by the American Statistical Association), Duncan withdrew the state’s waiver; subsequently, every superintendent in the state was compelled by NCLB to inform parents that their child was attending a failing school.
Now Congress is struggling to reauthorize NCLB. Since Republicans took control of both houses of Congress in the last election, they are in charge of this process. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, is leading the reauthorization process in that chamber. His proposal is called “Every Child Ready for College or Career Act of 2015.” In the House, the NCLB revision is led by Minnesota Congressman John Kline, whose proposal is called “the Student Success Act.” Notice the difference from 1965, when the law was simply called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Now, every law is given an aspirational title (like No Child Left Behind) that bears little relation to its actual effects.
Both of the Republican-led revisions under consideration have a single goal, and that is to reduce the federal government’s heavy-handed involvement in education since the passage of NCLB. Secretary Duncan has been especially intrusive, as he promoted the untested Common Core State Standards, advocated on behalf of privately managed charter schools, weakened student privacy laws, applauded school closings, and allocated $360 million to create tests aligned with the Common Core Standards. Federal law already says clearly that no federal official should seek to control or direct curriculum and instruction, and Duncan disingenuously claims that he has kept his hands off those areas. But standardized tests have a decisive influence on curriculum and instruction, and he knows it. Educators often say, “What gets tested is what gets taught.” The Common Core Standards, funded entirely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, directly affect curriculum and instruction, and they have been avidly promoted by Duncan, despite the law’s strictures.
As negotiations proceed, there are two major sticking points: the NCLB requirement for annual tests and the Republicans’ demand to make federal funding “portable,” enabling students to take “their” money and enroll in a private school or a charter school.
The annual testing mandated by the federal government has changed public schools in dramatic ways because they are now used to determine the fate of students, teachers, principals, and schools. More time for testing means less time for instruction. Students are the losers. The testing industry has benefited, especially the British giant Pearson. Not only did Pearson win the contract to write one of the federally-funded tests, it also now sells curriculum and textbooks aligned with the Common Core, owns the GED (which awards high school diplomas to students who did not graduate with their class), and has gained control of the teacher-certification process as well through a program called edTPA.
Parents and educators have noisily opposed the annual testing mandate, which they think places too much emphasis on standardized tests and causes schools to cut funding for the arts, physical education, foreign languages, history, and other subjects. Even now, many thousands of parents are refusing to allow their children to sit for the Common Core tests to protest them. The Common Core tests are not like tests that adults took many years ago; they require anywhere from eight to eleven hours and are “delivered” online. In the past, teachers wrote their own tests to find out what students had or had not learned. They could tailor instruction to help students who had fallen behind. But results from the new standardized tests are not reported until four to six months after the tests, and teachers are not permitted to see how students answered specific questions. Thus, everyone ends up with a grade—the student, the teacher, the principal, and the school—but the tests have no diagnostic value because teachers cannot learn from them about the needs of their students.
Despite widespread parent and teacher opposition to the law’s testing mandate, Congress seems determined to retain annual testing as part of federal law. Senator Alexander considered the idea of grade span testing—that is, tests offered once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school. But President Obama and Secretary Duncan insist on annual testing, as does Senator Patty Murray of Washington State, the leading Democratic on the Senate committee. And civil rights groups demand it as well, even though minority children have overwhelmingly failed the new Common Core tests. Apparently, the Obama administration has convinced them that their children will be overlooked unless their failure is demonstrated repeatedly by the tests.
Ironically, it is Democrats who are most determined to preserve President George W. Bush’s legacy of high-stakes testing. It is worthy of note that none of the world’s highest-performing nations—such as Finland, Japan, China, Korea, Canada, Poland, Estonia, and Singapore—tests every child every year; in that burdensome and expensive practice, the United States stands alone.
The second issue holding up reauthorization is “portability” of federal funding. Republicans have long embraced the principle of school choice, which has more to do with ideology than evidence. They assert that federal money should follow the child to any school his family selects, whether it is public, private, charter, or religious. Democrats have typically opposed this argument, noting that federal aid can then be used to weaken public education and spur the privatization of elementary and secondary schools. Vouchers have nowhere been more successful than public schools, and the public has rejected them whenever they were on the ballot. Charter schools have a spotty record; a few charter chains post high test scores, but most charters perform no better—and often much worse—than public schools.
This is a useful time to remember that the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act had one purpose: to send additional resources to schools enrolling large numbers of poor children. Over the past two decades, ESEA has become a vehicle for those who believe that standards and testing will cure poverty and low performance, a strategy that has failed to attain its goal after two decades of trying. With the Republican ascendancy, ESEA has become a vehicle for those who want to replace public education with a choice system, inserting their political goals into a program where they do not belong. All of the partisans are substituting their ideology for the commonsense understanding of Lyndon B. Johnson: Poverty is the major obstacle to equal education. To overcome that obstacle requires not only investing greater resources in the education of poor children, but creating economic opportunity and jobs for their parents.