Who’s in touch on NCLB? The Aspenites or FairTest and the Rest?

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, December 2008

Surveys show the public is increasingly contemptuous of the federal "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) law and its impact on teaching and learning. But miles from real-life classroom concerns, a powerful network of inside-the-beltway ideologues continues to defend NCLB and press for its expansion. In contrast, reform proposals from FairTest and the Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA) are generally congruent with public opinion.

According to the 2008 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, fewer than 2 in 10 of those surveyed think NCLB should continue without significant change [link to poll: http://www.pdkmembers.org//members_online/publications/e-GALLUP/kpoll_pdfs/pdkpoll40_2008.pdf]. Independent research confirms the public’s conclusion that the law narrows the curriculum and pushes out history, science, art, music, physical education and recess. Recommendations from FairTest and allied groups that make up FEA, including the Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB, signed by nearly 150 national organizations, aim to fix the flaws that have become so apparent to the public and transform the law into one that supports school improvement.

Bucking the tide of public opinion, a lofty group of NCLB defenders gathered at the Aspen Institute National Education Summit in September. FairTest had labeled this group’s 2007 proposal "NCLB on steroids" (see http://www.fairtest.org/aspen-commission-proposals-are-nclb-steroids-side-).

The Fortune 500 CEOs, former governors, former presidential advisors and big-city school superintendents did not address NCLB’s damage to curriculum, its unworkable Adequate Yearly Progress mechanism--headed toward declaring most U.S. schools as "failing" (see http://www.fairtest.org/sites/default/files/AYPproblemandSolution091807.pdf)--or its punitive approach. Instead, they debated the need for national standards and listened to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice declare education a national security issue. With few principals, teachers or school board members at the invitation-only event, there was what U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings called “violent agreement” that public schools are failing and the answer is a pumped up NCLB.

The event was only the latest high-profile gathering of an elite and powerful network that remains loyal to NCLB and calls for raising the bar. Who makes up this group, what is their agenda, and where does the money backing these initiatives come from?

The godfathers of this network are two well-heeled, powerful and influential business groups, the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Both backed NCLB from its inception and continue to lobby for Congress to expand the law’s reach. Over several decades, they have developed a close-knit network to push their standards and testing education agenda, including Education Trust, Achieve, Inc., Education Commission of the States, Broad Foundation, and many newspaper editorial boards.

The Roundtable and the Chamber have lost none of their love for the law despite evidence of its damaging consequences. On the contrary, the Chamber’s web site confirms its support: “The U.S. Chamber believes the No Child Left Behind Act is one of the critical tools needed to transform U.S. education so that all students graduate academically prepared for college, citizenship, and the 21st century workplace. Ask your legislators to support NCLB reauthorization efforts that go beyond the current Act.”

CEOs frequently say their support for NCLB-type reform is rooted in self-interest in that they need a more highly educated work force to compete in the global marketplace. But based on their lobbying to retain NCLB, it would appear they think those workers will actually need no more than functional literacy and math as measured by multiple-choice questions.

Thanks to NCLB’s testing and tutoring provisions, the law also has been a bottom line bonanza for those who produce the tests and provide test prep services. Estimates of NCLB-induced revenues to the testing industry range from $1.9 billion to $5.3 billion a year. An example of the self-serving actions of some NCLB proponents is Sandy Kress, former top education advisor to President George W. Bush . Kress helped design NCLB and is now earning millions as a well-connected lobbyist for test publishers. He is an active defender of high-stakes testing of individual students and is fighting to keep the Texas law that mandates grade retention for students who do not pass tests (see article, this issue).

In January 2007, the Chamber and the Business Roundtable spawned another group, the Business Coalition for Student Achievement (BCSA). The group is co-chaired by the chairmen of Intel, Prudential Financial and State Farm. In their kickoff press release, they urged Congress to reauthorize NCLB.

In July 2007, the BCSA and two civil rights groups, the National Council of La Raza and the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, along with Education Trust, reaffirmed their support for NCLB, issuing a statement called “NCLB Works!” It says, “A broad coalition of business, education, community and civil rights groups working in support of efforts to strengthen and reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, share the common belief that this law has been instrumental in focusing our nation on improving academic achievement for all students.” Their "broad coalition" seems to consist of a few organizations; in contrast, nearly 150 national education, civil rights, religious, disability, parent, labor and civic organizations call for an overhaul of the law in their Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB. Moreover, the evidence from real-world schools in classrooms is that the law is not working well for schools or students.

Another longtime Roundtable ally, the National Governors Association, also remains loyal to NCLB. The NGA is now promoting international benchmarking to ensure American students get a “world class” education. Dane Linn, director of the NGA’s education policy division said, "NCLB was a good start. It's now time to raise the bar."

Other “new” groups formed to influence the education debate in the run-up to the election. But a look at their rosters shows many of the same names and the same education policy agenda cropping up again and again.

Strong American Schools: Ed in ’08, for example, described itself as a nonpartisan group seeking to highlight education as an election issue. This group claimed public schools are failing across the board, putting our nation’s economic competitiveness at risk. It was backed by the Gates Foundation and Eli Broad, whose names and money are behind a long list of similar groups and initiatives. Gates and Broad pledged $60 million when they launched Ed in ’08 in April 2007 but turned off the spigot after investing $24 million. They declared the effort a success, but independent observers point out that this enormous investment did not raise the profile of education as an election issue.

The Ed in ’08 web site invites visitors to sign a petition with a series of frightening bullet points, set up with the claim, “Our schools are failing. While the rest of the developed world is preparing their children for the new century, our system continues to lag behind.” Their bullet points are mostly tendentious interpretations (or misinterpretations) of complex data rather than a careful presentation that could actually inform public discussion.

The group is chaired by former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer and Marc Lampkin, a former deputy campaign manager for George W. Bush. Supporters include Louis B. Gerstner, former CEO of IBM, the College Board’s Gaston Caperton, Ken Mehlman, former RNC chair, Former Ed Secretary Rod Paige, and Richard Parsons, Chairman and CEO of TimeWarner, Inc.

Ed in ’08 was closely linked to another group, The Education Equality Project (EEP), headed by New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and the Rev. Al Sharpton. EEP shared Ed in ‘08’s goal of highlighting education as a campaign issue. Statements from this group employ civil rights rhetoric but also embrace longtime conservative Republican orthodoxies like competition, scapegoating of teachers, and high-stakes testing. For example, they said behind our education crisis are “teachers' contracts and state policies that keep ineffective teachers in classrooms.” A press release announcing the group’s initiatives cited its connection with Ed in ’08 as well as Education Trust and Roy Romer. The group had the support of Jeb Bush and Republican presidential candidate John McCain. (Barack Obama did not endorse the group.) Unlike Strong American Schools, this group’s financial backing remains a mystery. Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, tried to identify the source of the group’s money. She asked David Cantor, press secretary for the NYC Department of Education, who backed the group, and he replied, “The project is being funded anonymously. No public money will be spent. The mayor is not funding the project.” Cantor also said there was no Broad or Gates money involved.

Despite large sums of money and influential positions in corporations and related organizations, NCLB's proponents have been unable to convince the public that NCLB is a good law. Surveys over the past several years have shown the more people know about the law, the less they like it. People do want accountability, and they want the federal government to support school improvement. Doing those well, however, will require a new law.