The demise of the federal No Child Left Behind law is imminent. It's unlikely to be reauthorized this year because the coalition that promoted the 2002 law has hopelessly splintered. So 2009 will present a unique opportunity to begin anew in education policy.
From the start, No Child Left Behind was deeply flawed. Its reliance on test-based accountability might have spurred teachers, but it also corrupted schooling in ways that overwhelmed any possible gains in test scores.
The law distorts the goals of schooling. It presumes to measure the performance of schools by relying on numbers that reflect only a few legitimate goals. But schools have many goals for students: basic math and reading skills to be sure, but also critical thinking, citizenship, arts appreciation, physical and emotional health habits, self-discipline, responsibility and conflict resolution. To threaten schools with sanctions for failure in only one goal inevitably diverts attention from others.
The mandate of No Child Left Behind -- that all students must be proficient at challenging levels -- is ludicrous. Even if we could eliminate all socioeconomic disadvantages, simple human variability would prevent a single standard from challenging every student.
A single standard of proficiency also invites sabotage of the goal of teaching all children. By that logic, the only children who matter are the "bubble kids," those with scores just below passing. Across the country, explicit school policies now demand that teachers focus only on these bubble kids, since getting them up to standard is what matters for the mandated "adequate yearly progress."
No Child Left Behind requires that all students reach proficiency by 2014. Since most educators consider that goal unrealistic, they expect it to be abandoned, which further reduces the incentive to worry about the lowest achievers. So the law ensures that more disadvantaged children will be left further behind.
No Child Left Behind denies the importance of all social policy except school reform. The law insists that school improvements alone can achieve universal proficiency. But inadequate schools are only one reason that disadvantaged children perform poorly. They also have greater health problems. They come to school under stress from higher-crime neighborhoods and more economically insecure households. They switch schools more often because of inadequate housing and rents rising faster than their parents' wages. The list could go on.
There are better and worse schools and better and worse teachers. And, of course, some disadvantaged children excel more than others. But No Child Left Behind has turned these obvious truths into the fantasy that teachers can wipe out socioeconomic differences among children simply by trying harder.
Treating schools as the main cause of American inequality -- in academic achievement, thus in the labor market and thus in life generally -- produces cynicism among teachers who are expected to act on a theory that they know to be false. Partly for this reason, many dedicated and talented teachers are leaving the profession.
In the end, the federal government will prove incapable of micromanaging the nation's 100,000 public schools. And the collapse of No Child Left Behind should prompt the next president to clarify what education roles remain for a new administration.
Jeff Miller is president of the Portland Association of Teachers.
© 2008 Oregon Live LLC.