What the Presidential Candidates are saying about NCLB

The Presidential Candidates on NCLB – Update, October 2008

With just two months until the presidential election, the Democratic and Republican parties have had their respective conventions and produced party platforms, which gives us an opportunity to see if the candidates are saying anything new about NCLB. The short answer is, nothing very specific. Independent candidate Ralph Nader, on the other hand, specifically calls for the law’s repeal. Libertarian Bob Barr and other candidates have also weighed in on the law since our last update in June.

One thing the two party conventions had in common was a failure to highlight NCLB as a significant issue. The Republican platform does not mention NCLB by name, but calls for “accountability for student achievement; periodic testing on the fundamentals of learning especially math and reading, history and geography; transparency, so parents and the federal government know which school best serve their students; and flexibility and freedom to innovate so schools and districts can best meet the needs of their students.”

Lisa Graham Keegan, chief education advisor to Republican nominee John McCain, when asked how McCain would change NCLB, mentioned “growth models” and said that McCain would seek more immediate help for students in failing schools. "If we find out a child is not doing well, that child immediately gets tutoring, that child gets an option for a new school," she said. It’s not clear exactly what either of these comments mean about specific policy changes to NCLB by McCain, since pilot versions of growth models are already permitted. As for tutoring and transfers, it all depends on what Keegan means by “immediately.” Is she talking about speeding up the sanctions timetable?

McCain's website is http://www.johnmccain.com.



The Democratic platform acknowledges the need to “fix” NCLB, but offers few specifics about what needs fixing or how it would be fixed.

“We will fix the failures and broken promises of No Child Left Behind–while holding to the goal of providing every child access to a world-class education, raising standards, and ensuring accountability for closing the achievement gap. We will end the practice of labeling a school and its students as failures and then throwing our hands up and walking away from them without having provided the resources and supports these students need. But this alone is not an education policy. It’s just a starting point. We will work with our nation’s governors and educators to create and use assessments that will improve student learning and success in school districts all across America by including the kinds of critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills that our children will need.”

Democratic Party nominee Barack Obama has in the past spoken somewhat more forcefully on the need to change NCLB. On Sept. 5, he said, "Math and science are not the opposite of art and music. Those things are compatible and we want kids to get a well-rounded education. Part of the problem we've had is that 'No Child Left Behind,' the law that was passed by Bush, said we want high standards, which is good, but they said we are going to measure those high standards only by a single high stakes standardized test that we are going to apply during the middle of the school year...a whole bunch of schools said we gotta teach to this test, and art and music isn't tested… It's a shame."

Obama's website is - http://www.barackobama.com/issues/pdf/PreK-12EducationFactSheet.pdf.



Candidate Ralph Nader clearly rejects NCLB’s approach. Nader is running as an independent with Matt Gonzalez, former San Francisco Board of Supervisors President. As of Sept. 4, they were on the ballot in 38 states. In an online chat session hosted by the Washington Post in July, there was this question from Maryland:

“I am a 28-year-old father, husband, student and educator. Would you be in favor of repealing No Child Left Behind? Do you believe -- as many educators do -- that NCLB punishes lower-income students/schools while rewarding the schools that already have a wealth of money and community support? Explain.”

Nader replied: “The Nader/Gonzalez campaign favors repeal of the No Child Left Behind law. Narrowly-based, multiple-choice standardized tests rupture the relationships between teachers and students and force the teachers to teach to the test, which themselves are poorly designed. States are gaming the law, violating it, and the overwhelming number of teachers are opposed to it -- for good reason. There are far better ways to stimulate higher-quality education and its assessment.”

Nader’s web site elaborates on his opposition to NCLB’s use of high-stakes testing:

“The Nader campaign opposes the over-reliance on high stakes standardized tests included in federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, commonly known as ‘No Child Left Behind.’ High stakes standardized tests have a negative impact on student learning, curriculum, and teaching. Using high frequency test scores to determine funding for a school, retention and graduation of students results in numerous unintended consequences. …

The Nader campaign agrees with Citizens for Quality Assessment that federal policy needs to be transformed from one that uses punishments to control schools to one that supports teachers and students; from one that relies primarily on standardized tests to one that encourages high-quality assessments. Broader measures of student learning are needed that include reliance of classroom-based assessments along with testing. Also, broader curricula are needed to enrich students, including development of the civic skill of engagement in understanding the world around them.”

Nader's website is http://www.votenader.org.



Libertarian Bob Barr has augmented his web site since our last update in June. Though he voted for NCLB as a member of Congress, he now includes these comments on the federal role in education and NCLB:

“The more we increase government control over education, the bigger the problem becomes. Turning education over to the federal government, as through such legislation as the No Child Left Behind Act has not worked. Trying to fix failing schools with more money and regulations also has failed to do anything other than waste taxpayer money without results.”

Barr explained his previous vote for NCLB by saying that, at the time, NCLB sounded like "a fresh approach to get the government out of education." It has instead done the opposite, he added.

Barr's website is http://www.bobbarr2008.com.



Among other candidates still running for president, ProCon.org reports that Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin (http://www.baldwin08.com/) is “con” and Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney (http://votetruth08.com) is “not clearly pro or con.” (These two candidates’ web sites do not mention NCLB specifically as an issue.)

Update on Green Party Candidate Cynthia McKinney

Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney, like Barr and Nader, is on the ballot in enough states to theoretically garner at least 270 votes. McKinney voted for NCLB in 2001. However, in a January 8, 2008, interview with “Reconstruction Renaissance,” she said, “We need to focus on education, but not with 'reforms' like No Child Left Behind that are basically aimed at dismantling public education. We need to instill pride and a desire to learn. We need free higher education for all. India's socialized economy provided free higher education. Now our jobs are being shipped to India."

The Green Party platform says, “The Leave No Child Behind Act must be repealed, especially the section that gives the military access to student records.”






For previous statements by Barack Obama and John McCain, see our June 16 update, below:

Previous Update June 16, 2008:

The reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law has stalled, making it unlikely anything will happen until a new president takes office (see " Education Groups Deepen Proposals for NCLB Overhaul," Examiner, April 2008) http://www.fairtest.org/education-groups-deepen-proposals-nclb-overhaul. With a growing consensus that NCLB needs major change, the next president will have a critical opportunity to influence the shape and scope of a reauthorized law.

The two remaining Democratic candidates for president, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have called for substantial changes. As the campaign has progressed, so too has the candidates’ willingness to denounce NCLB in stronger and stronger terms. Republican John McCain has mostly spoken in favor of the law. While minor-party candidates are expected to be on the ballot in some states, FairTest has not obtained information yet on any such possible candidates, and only Bob Barr, Libertarian, has been nominated by a party.

FairTest and the 143 signers of the Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB (representing more than 50 million Americans) have developed a set of key principles for overhauling NCLB:

· Replace the law's arbitrary proficiency targets with outcome and improvement goals based on achievable rates of success.

· Reduce testing, support multiple indicators of student learning, including state and local assessments, and utilize growth models, while funding development of a new accountability system.

· Focus on improvement, not punishment.

· Support continuing high-quality professional development, and strong family involvement.

· Fully fund Title I and supply the additional resources needed to ensure all schools can develop the capacity to serve their children well.

· (See www.fairtest.org and www.edaccountability.org for more information on FairTest and FEA recommendations.)

Echoes of these principles can be found in some of the candidates’ positions on NCLB.

Here is what the candidates have said about the federal education law (in alphabetical order). (Note: We were diligent in trying to find candidate positions on NCLB; some were more expansive and specific than others.)

John McCain

Update: As of late May, Senator John McCain remained supportive of NCLB’s basic test-and-punish approach to school improvement. According to a May 29 Wall Street Journal article, “Sen. McCain says the No Child law has succeeded by shining a spotlight on how effectively schools are teaching. His campaign says the threat of tough sanctions gives schools a big incentive to improve.”

Senator John McCain's website says: “No Child Left Behind has focused our attention on the realities of how students perform against a common standard. John McCain believes that we can no longer accept low standards for some students and high standards for others. In this age of honest reporting, we finally see what is happening to students who were previously invisible. While that is progress all its own, it compels us to seek and find solutions to the dismal facts before us….. John McCain will place parents and children at the center of the education process, empowering parents by greatly expanding the ability of parents to choose among schools for their children. He believes all federal financial support must be predicated on providing parents the ability to move their children, and the dollars associated with them, from failing schools.”

The National Education Association reports, “At a town hall meeting in Guilford, Senator John McCain supported fixing NCLB's testing requirements for special ed students and English-language learners.”

Another indication of Senator McCain’s education policy leanings can be seen in his appointment of Lisa Graham Keegan, a former Arizona superintendent of public instruction, as an education advisor. Keegan is known for promoting charter schools and fighting to impose the state's high-stakes AIMS graduation test, over bitter objections.


Barack Obama

Update: Senator Barack Obama spoke in May at a school in Colorado, Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts (MESA), which uses art instruction to support student learning in other subjects. Obama devoted a significant portion of his comments to NCLB and used the event to distinguish his views on the law from those of Senator McCain. Here is what he said about NCLB:

“I believe that the goals of this law were the right ones. Making a promise to educate every child with an excellent teacher is right. Closing the achievement gap that exists in too many cities and rural areas is right. More accountability is right. Higher standards are right.

But I'll tell you what's wrong with No Child Left Behind. Forcing our teachers, our principals and our schools to accomplish all of this without the resources they need is wrong. Promising high-quality teachers in every classroom and then leaving the support and the pay for those teachers behind is wrong. Labeling a school and its students as failures one day and then throwing your hands up and walking away from them the next is wrong.

We must fix the failures of No Child Left Behind. We must provide the funding we were promised, give our states the resources they need and finally meet our commitment to special education. We also need to realize that we can meet high standards without forcing teachers and students to spend most of the year preparing for a single, high-stakes test...

As president, I will work with our nation's governors and educators to create and use assessments that can improve achievement all across America by including the kinds of research, scientific investigation and problem-solving that our children will need to compete in a 21st century knowledge economy. The tests our children take should support learning not just accounting. If we really want our children to become the great inventors and problem-solvers of tomorrow, our schools shouldn't stifle innovation, they should let it thrive.”

In a speech to the National Education Association, Mr. Obama called No Child Left Behind "one of the emptiest slogans in the history of American politics."

According to the candidate’s web site, Senator Obama “understands that NCLB has demoralized our educators, broken its promise to our children and must be changed in a fundamental way.” Obama calls for improved assessments, and says he “believes we should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests.” He wants assessment models that provide “educators and students with timely feedback about how to improve student learning, that measure readiness for college and success in an information-age workplace; and that indicate whether individual students are making progress toward reaching high standards.” He would provide funds so states could implement a “broader range of assessments that can evaluate higher-order skills, including students’ abilities to use technology, conduct research, engage in scientific investigation, solve problems, present and defend their ideas.” Obama “believes we need an accountability system that supports schools to improve, rather than focuses on punishments.” He cites the need to assess children appropriately, including “English language learners and special needs students.” The system “should also create incentives to keep students in school through graduation, rather than pushing them out to make scores look better.”

One of Obama's key education advisors is Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, with whom FairTest has worked often. She is also a convener of the Forum on Education and Democracy, which promotes progressive education, including a reduction in the amount and weight of standardized testing.

- http://www.barackobama.com/issues/pdf/PreK-12EducationFactSheet.pdf