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NCLB: A Timely Reminder From The Past

ScreenHunter_02 Mar. 31 18.28

Reading Testing Limits, Nick Lemann’s 2001 New Yorker story about NCLB (from my Biggest Education Stories Of The NCLB Era entry last week) is like opening a time capsule from the not so distant past.  So much optimism.  So many early successes.  So many problems, known and unknown. So many things (no hearings!?) you may have forgotten.  It's an extremely useful reminder of how school reform gets done and a good thing to consider as reform moves forward via RTTT, FY11 appropriations, and – eventually – NCLB reauthorization. Read on for a refresher.

Written while NCLB was still in conference, the Lemann article criticizes Bush I and Clinton for having done little on education despite their grand claims, describes the standards movement as having come out of the South, “America’s Third World,” and slaps hard at upper middle-class parents of Scarsdale and elsewhere who considered their kids “little geniuses” too good to take annual tests.

The piece also predicts accurately the dangers and pitfalls awaiting the law when it came time for implementation:  potential dumbing-down of state standards, lack of comparability across states, perceptions that the rating system was arbitrary and unfair, growing resentment among educators and white collar parents against standardized testing.

Some of the facts you may not remember:  There were no hearings.  Spellings (then LaMontagne) and Sandy Kress did much of the heavy lifting rather than Secretary Paige. Only 45 members of Congress voted against it.  President Bush called George Miller “Big George.” Vouchers and annual testing were among the top issues debated publicly during the debate, while AYP formulas and disaggregation dominated the internal debate.  Governor Engler and Jeffords staffer Mark Powden led the charge against the original, more rigorous AYP, which was watered down twice before conference (and once again in conference). 

What Lemann didn’t know at the time was that the Texas reform effort would come under intense scrutiny during the years following the adoption of NCLB, during which accusations of test manipulation and cheating would undermine the model for NCLB just as flaws in the Chicago reform effort are being used to raise questions about the Duncan / Obama agenda.

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