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'No Child Left Behind' Law Produces Few Gains

But it's important for us to ask why NCLB isn't producing gains. To begin with, the supposedly disastrous effects of NCLB have all failed to materialize.

People said the harsh sanctions would punish schools unfairly, but in fact schools labeled "failing" are subject to virtually no actual punishment. People said implementing the testing requirements would be too expensive, but it wasn't. People said "real learning" would be sacrificed to mere rote drills, and other subjects would be cut in favor of nothing but endless reading and math instruction, all for the sake of the test. But there's no evidence of that -- and if it were happening, we would at least have seen some movement in the Nation's Report Card, which we haven't. People said NCLB would lead to massive dumbing down of state standards. But state standards were being dumbed down anyway due to other political imperatives, and NCLB doesn't seem to have accelerated the trend.

That's why supporters of the law can also claim vindication from the results of the Nation's Report Card. NCLB failed to deliver the good, but it also failed (if that's the word for it) to deliver the bad.

Also, the lack of results did not occur because holding schools accountable for results doesn't work. In states that have implemented accountability programs correctly, such as Florida, there have been impressive academic gains.

Rather, NCLB isn't producing gains because it's toothless. You can't have "accountability" if no one is ever actually held to account. But NCLB's official "sanctions" on failing schools are so full of loopholes you can drive the U.S. Department of Education through. And even where there aren't loopholes, schools can fall back on simple, outright failure to enforce the law. When it comes to ignoring the law, Wall Street has nothing on the government school system.

All this doesn't mean NCLB is worthless. As I've always argued, the real value of NCLB is in the critical data it gathers. For a century, the government school monopoly protected itself from public scrutiny by covering itself in a shroud of secrecy. It could cultivate a powerful mystique of excellence as long as no one was able to measure the real output of the system. Now that mystique is shattered, and it's largely because we have the data to show how much is wrong with the government's schools.

And the data are helping us figure out what works to make schools better. For example, in the last few years there has been an explosive growth of interest in teacher quality, whereas for decades before the only thing you heard about was teacher quantity (as in the old teacher-union canard of smaller class sizes). And the teacher quality reformers aren't buying into the teacher-union myths that worthless paper "certificates" equal good teachers. All this was driven by the NCLB data revolution.

It's now clear that we can't construct a workable accountability system at the federal level. The political barriers are just too high. We should preserve the invaluable data collection function of NCLB and otherwise allow states like Florida -- where the local political system has truly embraced reform -- to get on with their own accountability systems. And we should focus on other reform strategies that don't require us to squabble over whether government schools should be labeled "failing" or just "in need of improvement."

If only there were a school reform policy with a consistent track record of improving schools, and that had consistently shown stronger political viability than accountability reforms. Hmmmm.