Forget Iraq: We Need a Plan for Victory for NCLB

Last night's Presidential speech on the plans for the next steps on the war in Iraq has me wondering -- where's the "plan for victory" when it comes to No Child Left Behind?

I'm not sure there is one.


For the past three years, a diverse group of opponents (insurgents?) have waged a war of words, lawsuits, and bureaucratic chicanery against the federal law, slowing its implementation and undercutting its legitimacy in the public mind, despite a record infusion of billions in additional federal funding.

The civilian damage caused by the war over NCLB has been extensive. Thousands of schools have been wounded and maimed by not making AYP, or by having an embarassing achievement gap revealed, forcing curriculuar and instructional changes that not every agrees are correct. Tens of thousands of teachers have had to explain to their principals and parents why they aren't highly qualified. Millions of parents have been confused and frustrated by letters sent home telling that they have the theoretical right to transfer option and free after school tutoring -- but it's just not available.

And, perhaps most unfortunately, the idea of standards-based accountability and high expectations for poor minority children has been attacked and in some circles discredited as unrealistic.

In response to the opposition, the USDE has continually proclaimed its steadfastness and rolled out a series of compromises, large and small, including most recently a year's extension on the already-weak requirement that all teachers be highly qualified and a planned change in the way AYP is calculated.

The law is clearly slowing down, and the federal government is running out of money -- and will -- to increase funding further or hold the line in the face of additional bloodshed. To some, the time seems right to abandon NCLB entirely and return education policy to its rightful owners -- states and districts and teachers, be they inclined towards progressivism or direct instruction.

However, not everyone agrees that would work. Without the law as a common enemy, it's clear that those opposed to the law -- states rights folks, administrators, progressives, marketistas -- would quickly turn on each other, or at least revert back to where they were before.

Call it an exit strategy, or a plan for victory -- the question is: what comes next?

None of the obvious options are particularly compelling or realistic. A full-on rollback of the law seems highly unlikely, and would plunge the nation's educators into a void. The reality is that there is no clear alternative to the standards-based law, unless you count school finance lawsuits in the states or calls for resegregation and universal health care. The time when the public and policymakers trusted educators and local communities to figure it out on their own has come and gone.

Later this week: Some novel ideas for what comes next.


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