MAKING THE GRADE: The No Child Left Behind Act

Friday, January 14, 2005

In 2001, President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act, a bipartisan effort to mandate national education standards and increase federal funding of education. At the time, critics on both sides of the political spectrum were troubled by the expansion of federal power over education that the act represented and by the education standards the act mandated. Now, nearly half a decade later, has No Child Left Behind been a success? If not, how should it be reformed? Peter Robinson speaks with John E. Chubb and Martin Carnoy.

Recorded on Friday, January 14, 2005

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: Is No Child Left Behind making the grade?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: a report card for the No Child Left Behind Act. In 2001, President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act, a bipartisan effort to increase federal funding for our public schools and to mandate national education standards. At the time, critics were troubled either by the expansion in federal power over education or by the creation of these national education standards. Today, almost half a decade later, has No Child Left Behind been a success? If not, what do we need to do to fix it?

Joining us, two guests: Martin Carnoy is a professor of education and economics at Stanford University. And John Chubb is Chief Education Officer at Edison Schools Incorporated and a fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Title: The Era of Big Education

Peter Robinson: Harvard education professor Richard Elmore on the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. "The single largest and the single most damaging expansion of federal power over the nation's education system in history." Is he right about that, Martin?

Martin Carnoy: Partially.

Peter Robinson: Partially. All right, we'll come back to that. John?

John Chubb: No. No Child Left Behind has the potential to be an historic act to move American education forward like it's never been moved before. It's far from perfect but…

Peter Robinson: All right. No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, signed into law by President George W. Bush, Republican of Texas but one of his champions in congress was Senator Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts. In other words, broad bipartisan support. The act mandated certain national standards and since it went into effect in 2001, has augmented federal spending on education by some 7.4 billion, an increase of some 43%. Now let me quote you something from the White House website. "The priorities in No Child Left Behind are based on the fundamental notion than an enterprise works best when responsibility is placed closest to the most important activity of the enterprise," here we're talking about educating kids, "and when those responsible are given the greatest latitude and support." But, if that is true, then what is the federal government doing intervening in such a massive manner in a role that has traditionally been left to the fifty states? John?

John Chubb: What the federal government is saying for the very first time is that every child in America, regardless of where they live and regardless of what the spending happens to be in the city or the state in which they live, deserves to get an education that takes them to a reasonable level of proficiency, that gives them an opportunity to take advantage of all that this country has to offer. And that's a very important statement that the nation has never made. It's always been left to the states. And I think it's very important that this happen…

Peter Robinson: And you would agree with the implicit assertion that the states couldn't do it on their own or weren't doing it on their own?

John Chubb: The states--the states--the states have demonstrated that they--they cannot do it on their own. There--there was a very strong movement in this country towards accountability during the 1990s. So it's not as if the federal government or President Bush or Senator Kennedy was leading the charge. There was a lot of momentum towards holding schools accountable and insisting on a decent level of performance in the 1990s. But what the federal government did was to say there's no reason in the United States why if you grow up in Pennsylvania or grow up in California or grow up in Michigan, that your reading achievement should differ or that your basic math achievement should differ. And so the federal government stepped up and said we're going to insist on a level of quality across all of these jurisdictions.

Peter Robinson: We'll come to the provisions--specific provisions of the bill in a moment. But Martin does the federal expansion of power--the intervention in education trouble you or that's just…

Martin Carnoy: Not at all.

Peter Robinson: Not remotely.

Martin Carnoy: Not remotely.

Peter Robinson: You're with John on that one.

Martin Carnoy: Federal government intervention is not to me the main issue. The main issue is that if you're going to try to improve schools, I think you have to meet three criteria. You have to be able to identify the problem correctly. You have to then put incentives in that respond in some way to that problem. And then you have to bring the resources into play to help people meet the goals.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Martin Carnoy: Only the second--No Child Left Behind has only addressed the second issue. There's an assumption about what the problem is and that is not enough effort.

Peter Robinson: No Child Left Behind embraced several fundamental goals; accountability, transparency, choice and better teaching. Let's look at each in turn.

Title: Called to Account

Peter Robinson: Accountability first. Under No Child Left Behind, every state must already--enacted in 2001--be giving reading and math tests to students in grades three through eight and testing them again at least once in high school. Now let me quote from a report by the Koret Task Force on Education of which you were a member and you edited the report. "What is important here is that schools are accountable not for delivering education to students but for actually educating them." Now explain that distinction between delivering education and actually educating.

John Chubb: Well, the schools for a long time have been held accountable for making sure that school's in session for 180 days a year or for making sure that school's open six hours a day or whatever a state may choose to make sure that they're using the right kinds of textbooks, making sure teachers have the right credentials and so forth. But only in the last ten or fifteen years have our states and now more recently the federal government said well, you know, regulating all of those things is really not getting us the achievement that we want. We have too many kids dropping out. Our kids' test scores don't measure up to other countries. So we really need to think about holding schools accountable not for the process but for the outcomes, that is for making sure the kids actually get an education. And this is the first time that the federal government which has been providing money to inner city schools and to low income schools for some time, it's the first time the federal government has said what we really care about are the outcomes.

Peter Robinson: We've got several years of experience, has it made a difference? Is it working?

John Chubb: Well, for No Child Left Behind it's really too early to say. It's only been in operation for three years but there are several bits of evidence that I think point to this being a step in the right direction. One is…

Peter Robinson: I warn you that the look on his face suggest he's going to come back at you but go ahead.

John Chubb: And there's--and with any--with any new law, you have to give--you have to give it some time. But one, back in the 1990s, states that adopted the kind of accountability provisions--that is for kids reaching standards and having some consequences, incentives or sanctions--states that adopted accountability provisions like No Child Left Behind made more achievement gains than states that did not. So that's some prior evidence.

Martin Carnoy: He's citing my paper.

Peter Robinson: Yes, that's right. You wrote a paper on accountability, studying the states for…

John Chubb: Exactly.

Martin Carnoy: In math. In math…

Peter Robinson: In math only?

Martin Carnoy: In math only.

John Chubb: The second thing is that if you just look at the last couple of years across school districts, the Council of Great City Schools which represents all of the major school districts in America, they concluded that the doubling of the improvement rate in proficiency gains for those schools was attributable in part to No Child Left Behind.

Peter Robinson: All right. So you wrote a major report which I have looked at but I…

Martin Carnoy: A paper.

Peter Robinson: A paper?

Martin Carnoy: A published paper.

Peter Robinson: …in which you examined this question of accountability and concluded as in--as this layman grasped it, that accountability is good.

Martin Carnoy: Yes. Definitely between '96 and 2000, in terms of math scores…

Peter Robinson: This is state accountability programs?

Martin Carnoy: Right.

Peter Robinson: This is prior to No Child Left Behind.

Martin Carnoy: It looked to us. It looked to us. Now when you measure accountability, we try to actually rate the states.

Peter Robinson: Accountability means testing kids, right?

Martin Carnoy: Well, it's more than testing kids because it's…

Peter Robinson: Having consequences.

Martin Carnoy: ...and consequence. Testing plus consequences.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Martin Carnoy: And so we rated the states from one to five--zero to five, I'm sorry. Zero to five--and found that those states at five--actually between three and five--did better than the states down at zero, one. Okay, but the issue of 2000-2003 is less clear. Okay. In fact, when we try…

Peter Robinson: The results get blurry all of a sudden.

Martin Carnoy: The results get blurry. What happens is--it's rather complex because the states that did well in math in the 1990s now have slowed down. You know, the curve tops out. And so you can say we don't--we won't know until the next period of time. I agree with John. I mean, you can't make a judgment on three years. So we won't know. But I don't…

Peter Robinson: By the way, what do you need, five years, a decade? What do you need to know?

Martin Carnoy: Well we'll see over the long haul but you have to say this--let me tell you this. The math scores, at least for minorities, have been going up with a little hiatus in the late '80s since the mid 1970s. And the math scores for everybody have been going up since 1990 quite steadily. Okay…

Peter Robinson: So it's still early to say whether No Child--whether this provision of No Child Left Behind--the accountability provision--has done any good at all.

Martin Carnoy: We do have some evidence that it would do well but in this…

John Chubb: The question is really whether it's enough and what more we need. I don't think there's any dispute that…

Martin Carnoy: No, we don't--we're not disagreeing about this.

John Chubb: Holding schools accountable for outcomes I think has had a positive influence.

Martin Carnoy: I agree.

Peter Robinson: Has anybody been held accountable yet by the way?

John Chubb: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Under No Child Left Behind, has any school taken it in the neck for delivering bad test scores?

Martin Carnoy: Very few.

Peter Robinson: The reason I ask that question is because the provisions of the bill seem to have teeth but on the other hand, politicians…

John Chubb: Let's be fair with what's happening.

Peter Robinson: All right. Go ahead.

John Chubb: When schools--when schools fail for three consecutive years, the…

Martin Carnoy: Whatever that means.

John Chubb: By the definition of No Child Left Behind, if they fail to make adequate progress three consecutive years, the kids…

Peter Robinson: Treat me as a skeptic in the following sense. Treat me as somebody who says the politicians will never administer the punishment. They're going to let the schools slip-slide away.

John Chubb: Here's one thing that's happened.

Peter Robinson: Satisfy that fear on my part.

John Chubb: Okay. Well one of the things that No Child Left Behind says is that if a school fails for three years, the kids in that school are eligible for private tutoring.

Peter Robinson: We have three years of experience. Is anybody eligible in three years?

John Chubb: Yes, they have. And…

Martin Carnoy: Federal money can be... Title I Schools.

John Chubb: Title I Schools…

Peter Robinson: Which are?

John Chubb: High poverty schools receiving federal money. Those kids are eligible for something that they never had before which is that their parent can go to Sylvan Learning Centers or Princeton Review or Kaplan and get tutoring…

Peter Robinson: This is actually happening?

John Chubb: Yes. $1500 a kid and there are now millions of kids in the country who are receiving private tutoring because their schools are failing.

Peter Robinson: Failing schools. This brings us to the choice provision of No Child Left Behind.

Title: This Old School House

Peter Robinson: Koret Task Force, "Disadvantaged students are given a power that middle and upper income students have always had to choose a better school in a different neighborhood," they leave one--the bad school and they get to move to another neighborhood, "this thereby injects an element of the free market into the education system." You are a stout proponent of this choice provision of No Child Left Behind?

John Chubb: We believe that if a school is failing, that in addition to efforts to improve the schools, that parents in the schools should have options. And No Child Left Behind provides that. We also find though that the choice provision of No Child Left Behind is not being effectively--not being effectively used partly because there aren't good schools for the kids to choose from, partly because the districts are doing a very poor job of informing parents that they have the choice. And the only provision of the law that really is working is the tutoring--is the tutoring provision. I mean, working in the sense that kids are taking advantage of it. We don't know whether Sylvan or Princeton Review or Kaplan or anybody else is making a difference for their achievement but we do know that millions of kids are getting tutoring. Inner city kids are getting tutoring that right now middle class parents are paying for.

Peter Robinson: So that sounds good.

John Chubb: That's likely to be a positive…

Peter Robinson: You like the tutoring?

Martin Carnoy: I like the tutoring.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Martin Carnoy: I believe in tutoring. Here's the problem with the choice provision.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Martin Carnoy: I agree with John. It's good to give people choice--always good to give people choice. They like choice. So I'm not against choice. But here's the problem. The problem is that it is assumed that the choice schools will be better than the public schools because the public schools are failing.

Peter Robinson: Was that really the assumption or is this simply that the parents will be able to figure it out?

John Chubb: It's not choice because they can choose--they--I mean most of the choices are other neighborhood district schools. I mean, they can choose a Charter School but most of their choices are of other public schools. You know, if you're--you're at PS2 and it's failing, you can choose PS3 or PS1.

Peter Robinson: I see.

Martin Carnoy: If that were the real criterion that we're going to now send kids to other public schools, in fact, 25 to 30% of kids in these target populations are changing schools all the time anyway. So there's huge turnover in these schools.

Peter Robinson: Within districts, from school to school?

Martin Carnoy: Yeah.

John Chubb: In inner cities because of parents changing rental apartments and so forth. It's just--there's a lot of--there's a lot of mobility.

Martin Carnoy: He--he runs a--he runs the Edison schools. He knows better than anybody what the turnover rates in these schools are. I mean…

Peter Robinson: It's high?

John Chubb: It's a very big challenge for schools.

Martin Carnoy: It's the little thing that nobody talks about.

Martin Carnoy: Yes, for a lower income kid to keep changing schools is fatal to their scores.

John Chubb: Makes it very hard for schools to educate them…

Martin Carnoy: So every school, whether it be a Charter School or whether it be--I think faces this problem.

Peter Robinson: And No Child Left Behind…

Martin Carnoy: Doesn't deal with it.

Peter Robinson: Fails to address it altogether.

Martin Carnoy: Doesn't even talk about it.

John Chubb: And there's really little that a law can do about student mobility but what the law does make possible and it's really just a small part of the problem is that if there are schools that are utter failures, parents can opt out of them.

Martin Carnoy: What's really strange is the way--what they define as utter failure is that the school scores don't go up. Okay, the school scores are low and they don't go up. But they might not be going up because there's such high turnover of the student body…

John Chubb: But Martin, to be fair, the law only counts kids who've been continuously enrolled for a year...

Peter Robinson: Next, making school performance transparent.

Title: See Dick and Jane Learn

Peter Robinson: Under No Child Left Behind, these tests are used to compile annual report cards for schools--they're called--rating schools as either making more than adequate annual progress, making adequate progress or failing to make adequate progress and the scores from students in certain groups--boys' scores, girls' scores are separated, racial minorities are separated out, special ed students are separated out--all these things are separated so you can see them. Again, I'll quote from your Koret Task Force, John. "The law provides visibility into school performance that parents, citizens, policymakers and the media have never had." Isn't that at least something of an overstatement? I mean, real estate values reflect what's going on in schools. People know whether schools are good or bad.

John Chubb: If you go back ten or fifteen years, parents in particular, had very little idea of what the test scores looked like for the schools because they weren't published at all and that's…

Martin Carnoy: I don't disagree with that.

John Chubb: And but what's especially important about No Child Left Behind is the publication of the subgroups because special education kids, for example, nobody without this law would understand how those kids are doing. Racial minorities would not--it would not be clear. Schools have been able to hide behind their overall performance.

Martin Carnoy: This is not the issue.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Martin Carnoy: The issue is does No Child Left Behind address the real educational problems? Do they identify the problem correctly? The answer is no and the problem is identified as these low scoring public schools--that the public schools are ineffective. Let me tell you, it's a very small part of the problem. I've just identified one issue: high mobility rates. That's a big problem. Second issue: very bad conditions in the kids' families--bad nutrition, no preschool, all kinds of other issues--not addressed by No Child Left Behind although they're beginning…

John Chubb: But the point--is the law supposed to address everything? I mean, what this…

Martin Carnoy: No, the law is diverting attention from these issues.

John Chubb: No. No it's…

Peter Robinson: Hold on. You argue that the law actually does no harm, does harm…

Martin Carnoy: No, it does no harm--does very little good.

Peter Robinson: It does very little good.

Martin Carnoy: Does very little good.

Peter Robinson: It's irrelevant huffing and puffing and spending billions of dollars and it does very little good.

Martin Carnoy: In fact, giving choice to parents is a good thing from the parents feeling good about choice but the question is is it doing well for the kids?

John Chubb: Back to basics here. Just--but back to basics. There are lots of things that make educating kids difficult such as their family situation, such as their mobility and other things that you identify but that doesn't mean that an effort that what No Child Left Behind tries to do, which is to say we have to begin somewhere which is we have to have standards, we have to hold the schools accountable, we have to provide options for parents and we have to have some sanctions that will get rid of the schools that are really bad. Those are good things.

Martin Carnoy: But you're not getting rid of the schools that are really bad. You're introducing a lot of new schools that are really bad.

Peter Robinson: Now what would Martin Carnoy do to reform No Child Left Behind?

Title: More Heads, Earlier Starts

Peter Robinson: Martin Carnoy will now give me the three most important reforms in let's say a redrafting of No Child Left Behind. We have the beginning of the second Bush Administration. We make you president. We replace Bush with you and you now get to re--give me what you'd do.

Martin Carnoy: I would invest heavily in preschool education in these areas, you know, high quality preschool education. The evidence is mounting that this makes a difference. I would invest heavily in out of school programs…

Peter Robinson: Can you--preschool education is nursery school? Just…

Martin Carnoy: Two to five years old.

Peter Robinson: It makes sure that the kids are well fed and well cared for but what…

Martin Carnoy: And enriched and…

Peter Robinson: …what actual education goes on in…

Martin Carnoy: Yeah, I would expand Head Start.

John Chubb: Okay.

Martin Carnoy: I would expand Head Start down to two years old. And in fact, I would go--I would--the evidence suggests that in the early years of education, anyway coming out now the ECLS data, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey, that in fact, the only decline that occurs for the low income kids occurs in the summer, not during the school years.

Peter Robinson: It's the home environment that's the problem?

Martin Carnoy: No, the opportunities outside of school…

Peter Robinson: Oh I see.

John Chubb: It's when they--when they're outside of--when they're in the school, they're being reinforced when…

Martin Carnoy: That's why I like tutoring. See that's why I like tutoring. I think the additional stuff that's done by tutoring or after school programs…

Peter Robinson: You'd expand Head Start? You're with him on that?

John Chubb: Early child education does make a difference, yes. Head Start has its flaws but still it's--it's a good--it's a good way to spend money.

Peter Robinson: Give me another reform.

Martin Carnoy: I would really--I agree with John. I would start implementing action to try to attract higher quality people into teaching.

Peter Robinson: Can I--what is the problem--per capita spending in real terms on education in public schools has gone up in recent decades. At the same time we continue--what's the problem with teaching--that other jobs relative to teaching have become more attractive?

John Chubb: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: Other jobs have opened up for women. It used to be that women…

John Chubb: All of that's part of it.

Peter Robinson: So in real terms, you have to pay teachers more in order to stay even so to speak?

Martin Carnoy: Absolutely, absolutely. The fact is that you can't use the consumer price index to decide which is what we buy on a day-to-day--to decide what happened in education because the only thing you really buy in education is labor. And the price of female professional labor went up a lot faster than the consumer price index. So just to stay even…

John Chubb: Right. No that's absolutely true.

Martin Carnoy: He faces that every day. He's got to recruit teachers.

John Chubb: Absolutely but the question is what do you do about it? And pay is part of it but also working conditions are part of it and, you know, what it's like to teach inner city schools. I mean, we--what we find is that if you have a--if you have a profess--a sort of principal who knows how to run a school and can maintain an orderly environment, you have esprit de corps. You can attract good teachers into an inner city environment. But if the, you know, if the system is broken, then teachers will opt for the easier kids to educate.

Peter Robinson: Finally, what John Chubb would do to reform No Child Left Behind.

Title: Raise the Yellow Flag

Peter Robinson: What would you do to change No Child Left Behind? You're advising Bush.

John Chubb: I'm going to stick strictly with No Child Left Behind. One is we would recommend making tutoring available to kids earlier, not after the school fails three years in a row but after it fails two years in a row because tutoring should be effective. Second, we think that the state's standards should be pegged to the national test which is known as NATE because right now the states are lowering their standards in order to comply with No Child Left Behind.

Peter Robinson: They're lowering their standards…

Martin Carnoy: The states define what's proficiency. The states define proficiency.

John Chubb: States get to define proficiency. The Department of Education is supposed to provide oversight but basically the states are lowering their standards and there's kind of a race to the bottom. And that has to stop otherwise the law is a sham.

Peter Robinson: It doesn't bother you at all that what you're suggesting here is--tends to aggregate power in federal hands?

John Chubb: No, it doesn't at all. I mean, the country should stand--the country should stand up and say what's an adequate education for, you know, for kids in this country and it shouldn't differ whether you're in Mississippi or California…

Peter Robinson: Are there other adjustments or reforms?

John Chubb: So we do that. On the teacher provisions, we believe that--we believe that the requirements for all teachers should be that you have a Bachelor's Degree, that you have a major in the subject you're teaching or that you pass a test. And that should apply to new teachers and to veteran teachers because…

Peter Robinson: And again, that's a question of having the federal government impose rules on the states, where the states are not doing an adequate job.

John Chubb: Because the states--the states are using their discretion to water down the requirements and it's important that we have good--that we have good teachers. And it's important that we weed out people who are not--who are not doing a good job. So those are--those are at the top of the list.

Peter Robinson: Why do the states and localities do such a bad job? They're the people who are resp--you can't--from Washington, D.C. that money needs to be well spent in Santa Clara, California. I don't understand. I mean, where's the political breakthrough on here?

Martin Carnoy: Well the state--people of California have decided that they do not want to spend as much money as the people of New York State. I grew up in New York State. People were willing to pay their property taxes in New York State because they felt that they wanted to send their kids to good public schools in the suburbs of New York. They spent a fortune. My high school today is spending 16 or $17,000 per kid. That's double what Palo Alto High School spends.

John Chubb: Let's get back to the point about local control and this is really--gets to the heart I think of No Child Left Behind is that many communities, for whatever reason, tradition, distribution of political power, low expectations, just have not--not asked much of their schools. And that's their--you know, under a system of local control, if you're a little…

Martin Carnoy: That's their right.

John Chubb: …if you're a little rural community, that's your right. If kids have normally, you know, left school after tenth grade and gone to work in a factory, that's your right. But what the federal government and the states really before the federal government said is no, if you're going to--if you're a local public school system, we're going to insist on a certain level of performance. And that's new. I think it's important. It doesn't solve all the problems but...

Peter Robinson: And you're satisfied that the federal government is necessary?

John Chubb: It absolutely is…

Martin Carnoy: What's really interesting is that the southern states are--have been traditionally until very recent years much more centralized financially--totally centralized financially.

Peter Robinson: State Board of Education in Mississippi runs the whole show in Mississippi?

Martin Carnoy: The financing.

John Chubb: The financing.

Peter Robinson: Oh I see. I see. And what prospect do you see for any of those reforms to be enacted? Do you sense that the Bush Administration's actually interested in adjusting legislation?

John Chubb: Unfortunately I think what's happening is I think the Bush Administration is resting on its laurels a bit. I think they're very pleased that they got this law passed. I think they're pleased with the early evidence of its success. They don't have to do anything with it for several years because reauthorization hasn't come up and I think they're fearful that if they acknowledge the issues and open it up legislatively that anything could happen.

Peter Robinson: Gentlemen, last question. Last question: The stated goal--this is in the legislation of the No Child Left Behind Act--is to insure that by the year 2014, every student in the country will be able to demonstrate proficiency in reading, math and science by passing state tests. 2014, will every child in the country truly be able to demonstrate proficiency? In other words, will it work? What do you think?

Martin Carnoy: I think they will because I think the states will lower the proficiency standards.

John Chubb: I'm less cynical--I'm less cynical than that. Right now about half the kids in the country are meeting standards as set by the state. I think we could get to maybe 75%.

Peter Robinson: So you think it's working?

John Chubb: I think it can work.

Martin Carnoy: I think they can do it in math because in ma…

John Chubb: Reading is tougher.

Martin Carnoy: Reading is tougher. Why? Because reading is a cognitive skill and math is cognitive process. It's very hard to…

John Chubb: Math is a school taught skill. Reading is something that's dependent on your language, environment and…

Martin Carnoy: SAT scores on math are a function of how many math courses you took.

Peter Robinson: I see. Literally. I see.

John Chubb: It's the single best explainer. Reading is not that.

Peter Robinson: All right. Gentlemen, alas you've just opened up another topic. We could do another show but we can't. John Chubb, Martin Carnoy, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge. Thanks for joining us.