No Child Behind Failed, But Kevin Carey’s New Article Doesn’t Go Deep Enough to Explain Why

On Wednesday, Kevin Carey published an important piece in the Washington Post—a profile really of Amy Wilkins, currently the chief lobbyist for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and formerly a lobbyist for many years at The Education Trust.  Carey, the Vice President for Education Policy at the New America Foundation, also worked for three years as a policy analyst at The Education Trust, from 2002-2005, in the years right after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.

In this week’s article, Carey accurately identifies The Education Trust, founded and directed for many years by Kati Haycock, as “a pro-school-reform organization.” He explains that The Education Trust’s mission grew out of the promises of the Civil Rights Movement—grounded not only in commitment to school integration, but endorsing the mission of the No Child Left Behind Act that test-based school accountability would ensure that schools better served black children, who had for generations been left behind.  The organization was a cheerleader for ending what was often described as the soft bigotry of low expectations: “National tests showed that white students were, on average, far surpassing their black and Latino peers, and that low-income students were falling behind. The Trust called this the ‘achievement gap.’… After the long, inconclusive battles for desegregated and well-funded schools, the federal government would finally ensure that the most disadvantaged students got the good schools they needed.”  The Education Trust also supported expanding school choice through the proliferation of charter schools.

It is significant that in his recent article Carey acknowledges the collapse of the two-decades-long national school accountability narrative. While Amy Wilkins hasn’t compromised her belief in test-based accountability and the creation of escapes for some children into charter schools, even Wilkins concedes a shift away from the vision she continues to endorse: “Amy Wilkins hasn’t given up on school reform.  She remains ‘struck by how politics allows the stubborn self-interest of adults to undermine again and again what’s right for poor kids and kids of color.’ But she says, ‘I have to believe we’re just at the wrong end of the pendulum swing.'”

In addition to profiling Wilkins, Carey also examines the ground shifting underneath public education policy. It is here where I believe his assessment falls short because he neglects to examine a mass of research demonstrating that disruptive, test-and-punish driven school reform has failed our nation’s poorest children.  And privatization through the expansion of charter schools has aggressively robbed the public schools that serve the mass of our children of essential dollars to keep class size small and to retain enough social workers, counselors, certified librarians and school nurses.

As evidence of a shift in the national narrative about education policy, Carey points to Elizabeth Warren’s education platform during her recent campaign for President—a proposal to end the federal Charter Schools Program and quadruple federal Title I funding for public schools serving concentrations of poor children: “Warren wasn’t the only politician who had turned hard against school reform. As the Democratic presidential candidates rolled out their platforms in 2019, they promoted unprecedentedly generous plans for education. Sen. Bernie Sanders called for tripling Title I funding and providing free prekindergarten for all. Former vice president Joe Biden also called for tripling Title I and free pre-K.  Meanwhile, school-reform ideas that had been staples of presidential agendas since the 1980s were nowhere to be found—unless they were being stridently denounced.”

So, what happened?  Carey traces pressure from schoolteachers who have consistently pushed back against the narrowing of the curriculum and the increased drilling that inevitably followed intense pressure to raise scores. Carey also reports on the failure of charter schools consistently to raise scores, the extremely disparate quality of charter schools, and the lack of transparency in these schools which are publicly funded but privately operated. He quotes Wilkins’  assessment of of her movement’s failures: “She… looks back on the school-reform tidal wave she helped unleash in 2001.  One crucial mistake, she says, was making all of NCLB’s consequences fall on individual teachers and schools, not the school districts and state education departments. And she says, ‘we should have been more aggressive about school funding equity. Far, far far more aggressive.'”

Carey’s own critique is deeper.  He explores the paltry fiscal investment Congress made in No Child Left Behind when it ramped up the emphasis on testing and punishing the schools unable quickly to raise scores.  And he reports on evidence that No Child Left Behind and the expansion of charter schools have neither significantly improved achievement overall nor closed achievement gaps: “Did school reform work?  High school graduation rates have improved over the past two decades, probably in response to accountability… NCLB produced modest bumps in student achievement on federal and state tests in the early ears.  Those gains, however, were concentrated in math in the early grades and seem to have plateaued or possibly reversed in recent years… As for charter schools studies have shown that they have not on average performed appreciably better than regular public schools.”  To his credit, Carey explains that mistrust threatens human relationships and institutions, and he criticizes No Child Left Behind for driving mistrust of teachers and public education in general. In fact, the law’s primary mechanism was to threaten educators with punishments if they could not produce ever higher test scores. It blamed schoolteachers for problems we now know they cannot control.

While  Carey is correct that support for the test-and-punish strategy of No Child Left Behind has waned and that skepticism is growing about the rapid expansion of charter schools, his analysis fails to explore several of the most important reasons for the failure of of the reforms The Education Trust endorsed.  Certainly his focus on Amy Wilkins narrows the issues he emphasizes.  Here are academic researchers addressing three problems Carey fails to address:

FIRST  In The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on standardized testing, documents research exposing flaws in the entire strategy of No Child Left Behind.  While Carey quotes Wilkins alleging that teachers should have been tougher and resisted pressures to narrow the curriculum and drill for the tests, Koretz describes social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes (in the case of No Child Left Behind–closing schools, charterizing schools, firing principals, firing teachers) are tied to a quantitative social indicator (the assumption that teachers can produce higher aggregate student test scores year after year): “The more any quantitative social indicator is is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)  Koretz shows that imposing high stakes punishments on schools and teachers unable quickly to raise students’ scores inevitably produced reallocation of instruction to what would be tested, caused states eventually to lower standards, caused some schools quietly to exclude from testing the students likely to fail, and led to abject cheating—as happened in Atlanta under Superintendent Beverly Hall.

SECOND  Research has demonstrated not only that state legislatures have persistently underfunded their public schools, but also that the rapid expansion of charter schools has been draining millions of dollars out of the school districts where the charter schools are located.  The best documented example is in the Oakland Unified School District, where political economist Gordon Lafer reports that charter schools drain $57.3 million dollars annually out of the public schools.  Here’s why: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community.  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” “If a school district anywhere in the country—in the absence of charter schools—announced that it wanted to create a second system-within-a-system, with a new set of schools whose number, size, specialization, budget, and geographic locations would not be coordinated with the existing school system, we would regard this as the poster child of government inefficiency and a waste of tax dollars. But this is indeed how the charter school system functions.”

THIRD  Despite many people’s hope that if public schools worked harder and smarter, our society could leave no child behind, it is now well documented that public schools by themselves cannot solve economic inequality and child poverty. David Berliner is the Regents’ professor emeritus at Arizona State University, former president of the American Educational Research Association and former dean of the College of Education at Arizona State University.  Berliner explains: “(T)he big problems of American education are not in America’s schools. So, reforming the schools, as Jean Anyon once said, is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door. It cannot be done!  It’s neither this nation’s teachers nor its curriculum that impede the achievement of our children. The roots of America’s educational problems are in the numbers of Americans who live in poverty. America’s educational problems are predominantly in the numbers of kids and their families who are homeless; whose families have no access to Medicaid or other medical services. These are often families to whom low-birth-weight babies are frequently born, leading to many more children needing special education… Our educational problems have their roots in families where food insecurity or hunger is a regular occurrence, or where those with increased lead levels in their bloodstream get no treatments before arriving at a school’s doorsteps. Our problems also stem from the harsh incarceration laws that break up families instead of counseling them and trying to keep them together. And our problems relate to harsh immigration policies that keep millions of families frightened to seek out better lives for themselves and their children…  Although demographics may not be destiny for an individual, it is the best predictor of a school’s outcomes—independent of that school’s teachers, administrators and curriculum.” “We certainly do not have the legally sanctioned apartheid of South Africa.  But we should recognize that we do have heavily segregated systems of housing. In New York and Illinois, over 60 percent of black kids go to schools where 90-100 percent of the kids are nonwhite and mostly poor.  In California, Texas and Rhode Island, 50 percent or more of Latino kids go to schools where 90-100 percent of the kids are also not white, and often poor. Similar statistics hold for American Indian kids.” (Emphasis in the original.)

To summarize the urgent realities that Carey omits from this week’s article but which, together, discredit twenty years of test-and-punish, accountability-based school reform, we can turn to the National Education Policy Center’s Bill Mathis and Tina Trujillo, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who explain that school reform must address the enormous disparities in opportunity among our children.  Such an an effort would address school funding inequity—the reason Democrats running for President this year have endorsed quadrupling or tripling the federal investment in Title I. It will also be necessary to define the problem not merely as an achievement gap, but instead as an opportunity gap:

“We cannot expect to close the achievement gap until we address the social and economic gaps that divide our society. No Child Left Behind had the explicit purpose of all children achieving high standards and thereby closing the achievement gap by 2014. It did not close. Noting the widening academic achievement gap between rich and poor, Sean Reardon found the gap ‘roughly 20 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier… In an economic and social shift, he reports that family income is now nearly as strong a predictor as parental education. The income achievement gap, which is closely tied to the racial gap, is attributable to income inequality, the increased difficulty of social mobility, the bifurcation of wages and the economy, and a narrowing of school purposes driven by test taking… Low test scores are indicators of our social inequities… Otherwise, we would not see our white and affluent children soaring at the highest levels in the world and our children of color scoring equivalent to third-world countries. We also would not see our urban areas, with the lowest scores and greatest needs, funded well below our higher scoring suburban schools. With two-thirds of the variance in test scores attributable to environmental conditions, the best way of closing the opportunity gap is through providing jobs and livable wages across the board.”

One thought on “No Child Behind Failed, But Kevin Carey’s New Article Doesn’t Go Deep Enough to Explain Why

  1. This is a great synthesis of where we find ourselves today and how we got here. Thanks, Jan, for another great article. I am waiting for you to publish a book about the education of children in the United States.

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