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NCLB: Education Reform or Politics as Usual?

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Richard Elmore

Richard Elmore, Harvard Education scholar, spoke to a standing-room-only TC audience in February.

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To Richard Elmore, the Bush Administration's school revolution has been all about the latter

Harvard education scholar Richard Elmore describes himself as "a recovering political scientist," but to the standing-room-only TC audience that heard him discuss the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in February, it was apparent that old ways die hard.

Elmore's talk, "Can NCLB Be Fixed?", focused as much on the politics of answering that question as on the law's many features. Indeed, Elmore describes NCLB as "a major political revolution in education," arguing that the Bush Administration's goals have had more to do with federalizing control of the school system and winning voter approval than with any genuine impulse toward education reform. The law's enactment was "a masterful job of political strategy," Elmore said-'"one that has enabled the Administration to usurp the states' historic control of education policy in the name of achieving performance-based school accountability. "The Administration's interest in accountability is about electoral credit, not school improvement," he said, charging NCLB's architects with focusing only on "the symbolic value of accountability.

"The Bush Administration would have you believe that performance-based school accountability did not exist before NCLB-'"that everything that has happened regarding school accountability is due to NCLB," said Elmore, the Gregory R. Anrig Professor of Educational Leadership at Harvard University and a Senior Research Fellow with the Consortium for Policy Research in Education. "This could not be further from the truth."

In fact, he said, nearly two decades before NCLB was signed into law in 2002, there was a shift toward accountability at the state level. By 1994, 49 states had put in place some type of performance-based school accountability system. With NCLB, the federal government seized oversight power from the states, Elmore said, and designed and mandated a uniform performance-based school accountability system that set strict parameters for assessment, standards and sanctions.

In addition to what he sees as an insidious power grab by the federal government, Elmore believes that NCLB is rife with problems as an educational policy.

"There is over-reliance on testing as an instrument of accountability, an under-investment in skills and knowledge. Testing and measurement practices are not subject to external scrutiny. There is no empirical basis for AYP [average yearly progress, the standard of measurement by which schools are judged under NCLB] and there is limited-to-no capacity to deal with failing schools," Elmore said.

Strong words-'"especially coming from someone introduced by Dean Darlyne Bailey as "a man considered by some of his colleagues to be the father of school reform."

So can NCLB be fixed when it comes up for reauthorization in 2007? Admitting that his students refer to him as "Dr. Doom," Elmore said he was less than optimistic though not entirely without hope.

"Given the political forces that have gotten us here, it will take an equal sense of political strategy to get the genie back into the lantern," he said. Because "most of the institutional forces responsible for NCLB are still in place," educators must be aggressive both in identifying NCLB's problems and in forming state-level coalitions to bring about change. Meanwhile, no one should look to the Democratic Party to lead the counter-revolution. Democrats in the current Congress have been marginalized, Elmore said. Instead, the group with the most power to affect change is what he calls the "libertarian conservatives"-'"the people most offended that the federal government is dictating education policy to state systems and neighborhood schools across the country. If there is any hope in changing the law during the upcoming reauthorization process, Elmore said, it is this: "Get to the libertarian conservatives and the liberal Democrats will follow."

Elmore's lecture, sponsored by the Office of Policy and Research and TC's Campaign for Educational Equity, was the first in a series of TC events that focus on the pending reauthorization of NCLB in 2007.

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