Education Policy for the Paranoid

A lot of people look at the No Child Left Behind Act's requirement of "100 proficiency" and smell a rat; an obviously impossible goal. I would read Richard Rothstein's "'Proficiency for All': An Oxymoron" for a detailed explication of this view. Then many, including Kevin Drum, move from this to a paranoid account of the motives behind the provision. "What incentive does anyone have to label 99% of America's public schools as failures?" he asks, "That's crazy, isn't it?"

Answer: Anyone who wants the public to believe that public schools are failures. This would primarily consist of conservatives who want to break teachers unions and evangelicals who want to build political momentum for private school vouchers. The whole point of NCLB for these people is to make sure that as many public schools as possible are officially deemed failures.

I'll happily agree that this provision seems somewhat ill-advised to me. However, the "secret plot to destroy public schools" account of the whole point of NCLB has some problems. Does Kevin really expect me to believe that this is what Ted Kennedy and George Miller, the law's leading Democratic supporters in the Senate and the House, are up to? These are big-time liberals. Perhaps they're wrong -- Kennedy's certainly not above criticism -- but it's absurd to think that they're leading agents behind an enterprise whose whole point is to dismantle the public school system.

The answer to the 100 percent proficiency riddle is that to get his results Rothstein assumes that NCLB proficiency should mean the same thing as proficiency on the NAEP. The law does not, however, actually say this. States have broad lattitude to define proficiency however they like and will, presumably, set proficiency standards that won't simply result in their schools all "failing" across the board.

I think it's perfectly cogent to wonder if this is really such a bright idea. In effect, you're talking about setting a proficiency standard that's more of a floor that you're aiming to get the very worst students above rather than a target that you're trying to get typical students to reach. Consequently, you may wind up shortchanging typical students to some extent.

But all that said, it's just not true that the law is has put the country on a collision course to a world in which 99 percent of public schools are labeled failures. You don't need to ask yourself who wants this outcome, because it's not a likely consequence of the law. It's instructive to look at an outfit that clearly does just want to destroy public education like Cato and see what they think about NCLB -- they hate it.