'Collision Course': Manna on No Child Left Behind

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When U.S. legislators attempted in 2001 to create accountability within local school systems through passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, collisions between federal, state and local education officials were inevitable.

In his new book Collision Course: Federal Education Policy Meets State and Local Realities, Paul Manna, associate professor of government and a faculty affiliate in the Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy at William & Mary, details both the frequency of those collisions along with the overall successes and failures in terms of moving beyond them.

Manna wrote the book, his second dealing with federal education policy, to fill a void. “There have been a lot of studies of the No Child Left Behind Act, but none that tied together in one package that looked at federal, state and local levels, how the law trickled through these levels,” Manna explained.

The book opens with a brief history emphasizing that No Child Left Behind is not something new but grew out federal concerns first expressed in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed during the 1960s. That Act would be revised in 1994 during the presidential administration of Bill Clinton. In 2002, President George Bush’s revision, passed with post-9/11 bipartisan support led by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.) and Rep. George Miller (D. Calif.), took the previous version a step further by including specific provisions designed to impose accountability on states. These included requirements for the development of state standards in reading, math and science and for testing in grades 3 through 8 and again in high school as a means of measuring what became phrased as adequate yearly progress (AYP).

Subsequent chapters of the book examine the theories of action implicit in the law, how they were written and how their implementation was facilitated within the states, within individual school districts and, in some cases, within classrooms. Among challenges encountered were conflicting interpretations of what was to be meant by proficiency, how state standards interplayed with federal standards and how local school systems had to battle against lack of technical resources required to generate all the reports demanded.

Overall, Manna concludes that No Child Left Behind has created some positive results, but he suggests that the negative results are greater. He is particularly critical of its fulfillment of the mandate to create accountability. “If we envisioned No Child Left Behind to be a law that would promote accountability, and promote high performance, students learning rigorous content, it really has fallen down,” Manna said.

Among negative factors is what he termed “the narrowing of the curriculum.” He suggested that an increased focus on math and reading is not a bad thing, as they are “gateway” subjects, but inasmuch as that focus has taken away emphases on other “creative” areas, damage has been done. He also referenced a focus on general proficiency achievement, a situation that caters to students on the margins. “You could have a situation in which students who are achieving on a very high level during early testing could actually see their proficiency decline yet still be counted as proficient,” he said. Another weak spot of the act involves the additional layers of bureaucracy engendered. “Federal policy does not set academic standards; states do that,” Manna said. “Federal policy focuses on procedures.” The additional bureaucracies, he noted, were created to fulfill procedural requirements.

Perhaps the greatest negative involving the law is the resulting overall stagnation or decline in rigor: Even though scores might be going up, the substance of learning probably has not, according to Manna. In the book, he charges that implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act “tended to produce practices that decreased academic quality and expectations in the nation’s schools.”

Currently there is increasing pressure to revise that law. Indeed, No Child Left Behind contains the mandate that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014. “Based on current projections, no state will pass; 90 percent of individual schools may fail to meet the standard in some communities,” Manna said.

 As federal policymakers consider eminent revisions, they would do well to focus on the positive results of No Child Left Behind, Manna said, particularly those detailing where the federal role can effectively influence change. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the law will be its clear showing that there are children who, due to their economic or physical locations, simply do not have access to quality schools or quality teachers, a situation that will hamper their success throughout their lives. Another positive that resulted from the act is that federal policymakers, by asserting their desires, provided political cover for state officials intent on creating their own accountability measures regarding their educational institutions.

To revise the law without taking to heart the lessons of No Child Left Behind would be to, as Manna writes in Collision Course, spend billions of dollars to “re-create the same frustrations over process and invalid outcome measures that No Child Left Behind produced. It would also continue the tradition of requiring the adoption of accountability systems that serve primarily symbolic and political ends but do little to help agency administrators or school officials manage their activities to encourage high performance.”