Prelude to ‘Race to the Top’: a short history

Harold Berlak

NCLB:  from local to central government control

No Child Left Behind is the title tacked on to the 2001 reauthorization of ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Act.  Passed originally in 1965, ESEA, was considered the centerpiece of President Lyndon Johnson’s plans for a ‘Great Society’ and as a chief weapon in the ‘War on Poverty,’ his multifaceted effort to confront the problems of inequality in America.  The story now  accepted as received truth is that the social agenda installed during the Kennedy / Johnson years was a disaster. Even the solidly middle of-the–road policy establishment, the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Foundation among others perpetuate this story as historical fact.  

The War on Poverty did not fail; it was abandoned before it was waged. Nine months earlier to passage of ESEA, in August 1964, the US initiated massive bombings and launched the ill-fated ground war in Vietnam. The first contingents of combat Marines arrived just one month before ESEA became law. 1965 was a year of other momentous events that along with the Vietnam War forever changed the landscape of American culture and politics.  It was the year of “Bloody Sunday," when some 600 civil rights marchers were beaten and arrested by local and state police near Selma, Alabama; the year that Congress passed the first voting rights act since Reconstruction; it was the year of the first of many anti Vietnam war protests on the Washington Mall and at numerous university and college campuses across the Nation.  It was also the year Malcolm X was assassinated and violence erupted in Watts, a heavily African-American section of Los Angeles that required 15,000 troops, several hundred police and 4000 arrests to quell. Thousands of residences and small businesses were burned or looted, and thirty died.  By year’s end talk of a ‘Great Society’ and waging ‘War on Poverty’ had all but disappeared from the nation’s news media and from the language of everyday US politics. 

Though Johnson’s grand design for a transformed society never materialized, several of his anti-poverty legislative measures survived and continue to the present including ESEA albeit with diminished funding and a different and far more modest (some might say realistic) set of aspirations as to what’s possible. Title1 was then and remains the flagship of ESEA, providing educational services to low-income children in about 50% of the nation’s public schools, almost 65% percent of whom are of color, majority African-American and Latino.  The federal government, (mostly through Title 1 of ESEA) accounts for about 8% of total US expenditures for elementary and secondary education. Though a feeble amount it’s a lifeline for resource-starved US public schools particularly those serving the poor.  

There have been significant changes to ESEA over time. The changes in direction reflect the changes in American culture and politics set off by the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights battles  led by Martin Luther King Jr.  Nixon’s election in November 1968 marked the end of an era and the beginning of the sharp right turn in American politics that has continues to the present. 

The original vision of ESEA was written to support local initiatives and preserve and strengthen local control. States received and dispensed federal dollars to counties and school districts according to a complex formula based on the proportion of students from low-income households served.  However, state officials and the states’ educational bureaucracies had little control over the substance and direction of the educational programs.  This was not an oversight, but deliberate policy. While general guidelines were set by the US Office of Education, design, implementation, setting qualifications for personnel, and evaluation of program effectiveness were left in the hands of locally elected officials, boards, principals, and teachers. Specific language was included in ESEA ,“… prohibiting any federal agency or official from exercising direction, supervision, or control over curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel in any educational institution or school system.”  There is similar language in Section 1905 of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, raising the question:  given the explicit prohibition of the exercise of federal power over schools, how has it come to pass that government officials, federal and state educational bureaucrats today possesses and use their  power to  dictate to teachers curriculum and pedagogy in teaching reading, math, and other basic subjects ?  How has it come to pass that the former purported progressive community organizer,  our  President now proposes to increase the federal intervention and further diminish local democratic control.

These early ESEA policies that aimed to foster and strengthen local control were clearly not accidental or incidental to the legislation.  The chief architect who shaped the policy and formulated the rules of the original ESEA was Francis Keppel Jr., U.S. Commissioner of Education, at the time the nation’s highest ranking federal education executive officer appointed by John F. Kennedy. Both had graduated Groton and Harvard within a year of each other. (Their fathers were roommates at Groton.)  Keppel, a well-connected patrician with a social democratic bent, was convinced that the educational system could not reform itself top-down, and that the deadening hand of educational bureaucracies, federal, state and local were an obstructions to achieving the changes he sought. As Commissioner he had two primary jobs: overseeing administration of ESEA and enforcing provisions of the recently passed 1964 Civil Rights Act as it applied to the nation’s public schools.  Keppel was previously Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education having been appointed by James Bryant Conant, a  scientist and highly esteemed academic statesman of his time. He served as U.S. High Commissioner in post World War II West Germany, President of Harvard, and  was chief author of the highly influential and acclaimed The American High School Today published in 1959, better known as the Conant Report.  Keppel possessed none of the usual qualifications for the position of dean at a premier research university.  He was extraordinarily young (in his thirties), had never held a faculty position, had neither earned any advanced degree nor published anything .  As Dean, he gained a national reputation for transforming the Harvard Graduate School of Education from an intellectual backwater into a position of national prominence and leadership in education.  He is credited with initiating cooperative school / university programs for research and development, and revitalizing teacher education at major universities.  In a speech in 1966, the year he left office as Commissioner of Education, he said, “new methods of assessing and reporting educational quality at different levels must be developed, but…”there remains the problem of who controls the testing.” He was opposed the use of standardized testing, “for individual measurement or comparisons,” fearing the results would be misunderstood and / or misused.[1]

Richard Nixon was in charge of the first deliberate effort to undo Keppel initiated policies that sought to support and strengthen local control.  Nixon ran for office on a platform of peace in Vietnam (which did not arrive until the US withdrew in defeat four years later) and on the Republican standbys of self-reliance, low taxes, and small government.  He was scornful of Johnson’s promise of  a Great Society, but as a political realist he knew there was little support for a frontal assault because several of Great Society signature programs, ESEA, Head Start, and Follow-Through among them, enjoyed wide support by the Democrat  controlled Congress and by moderate, so-called ‘Rockefeller Republicans’, now a vanished breed but a significant  political minority in pre-Reagan years. 

The Nixon Administration adopted ‘fiscal responsibility and accountability’ as a slogan and tool for reducing, containing, and extinguishing Great Society programs. In practice this translated to tightening federal executive control of local initiatives, coupled to reduction of federal expenditures.  One prime example was the fate of project Follow-Through. If installed as conceived, it would likely have become the nation’s largest single federal antipoverty education program. It was designed to work in tandem with Title I of ESEA to capitalize on gains made by Head Start, the Great Society’s pre school program serving the poor. Projects Follow-Through and Head Start together were  intended to be universal, providing federal aid directly to all the nation’s poor children pre-K through third grade. Estimated initial yearly cost of Follow-Through was just over one billion in 1965 dollars, but it was funded in the tens of millions, never reaching 10% of the original estimate.

Project Follow-Through was salvaged by supporters by converting it from a full-fledged federal program into an ‘experiment’ that would establish once and for all which of the several Follow-Through approaches to educational improvement was most effective. Standardized tests were (as now) assumed to be the only credible scientific measure of educational growth and program effectiveness. The consequences were predictable. The Follow-Through ‘experiment’ not showing a significant bump in standardized test scores was declared a failure and finally axed in 1994 under Clinton’s watch. Project Follow-Through, however foreshadowed the use of standardized tests as an effective instrument for asserting federal and state bureaucratic government control over schools; with the authority to override state law and local decision-making, and impose educational  priorities .  

Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 with the promise to restore national pride, family values, and limited government. As candidate for president he pledged he would dismantle the newly established US Department of Education as a cabinet level post and return control of education to the American people. As President he failed to deliver on this promise, and during his eight year tenure he largely ignored public education, initiating no significant educational legislation or changes to ESEA.  Ironically it was Reagan’s Secretary of Education, Terrel Bell who (with Reagan’s begrudging approval) appointed the national commission that in 1983 produced A Nation At Risk that set in motion an opposite course  –toward an unprecedented strengthening and co joining of federal and state power over locally elected school boards, schools, teachers, parents, and classrooms. .

Following are the words from A Nation at Risk often credited as having launched the national testing / standards movement that led to NCLB.

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

A Nation at Risk’s specific recommendations were unremarkable and mostly ignored. The Report would likely have quickly fallen into a deserved obscurity had it not been for its military metaphors and the fact that the nation was in the midst of its severest economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  This at the same time that Japan was at the height of its post World War II economic boom and was repeatedly celebrated in the press as an  economic miracle. Japan’s economic prowess was widely attributed to its no-nonsense primary and secondary schools focused on the basics.  The main conclusion drawn by A Nation at Risk was that the major reason for America’s economic troubles was the absence of high academic standards and the indiscipline and permissiveness of the nation’s schools. Despite its many distortions and omissions of fact, and paucity of practical remedies, A Nation at Risk’s declaration of a national educational crisis and call for ‘excellence’ lifted the issue of the quality of public education from a local, regional and state matter to the level of a nationwide crisis ,[2]  that continues to the present. A Nation at Risk succeeded in rallying the major corporate lobbies, mainline foundations, and think tanks in a concerted crusade for national testing in order to restore discipline in schools and raise academic standards. Their argument centers on two claims: First, that the strength of America’s position in the new global economy depends on raising academic standards in elementary and secondary schools; second, that high performing schools bring better jobs.  Both claims are false yet   they continue to be advanced as uncontestable facts by  the mainstream policy establishment who  support  national testing including Margaret Spellings Secretary of Education under G.W. Bush and  the current  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.   Six years after publication of A Nation At Risk, Japan despite its tough-minded, disciplined schools focused on basics fell into a decline  deep recession that persisted for more than  a decade.  During this same period the US economy experienced its greatest boom in history despite the  claim repeated  by high profile CEO’s, politicians,  the mainline foundations and policy  establishment that  US public schools are among the worst in the developed world.[3]

 Bush I was the first president to propose a form of national testing as the answer to the education crisis proclaimed by A Nation at Risk.  At the urging of his Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander, his campaign manager and a former Tennessee Governor, he convened the first President’s Education Summit in Charlottesville, VA in 1989.  It was co-chaired by Alexander and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton who had served on the National Governors Association Education Task Force with Alexander.  All fifty governors, numerous federal and state officials, several CEOs and academics attended the two-day meeting.[4]  Congress responded to the Summit’s call for action by creating a national commission that produced the seminal report, Raising Standards for American Education.[5] Its conclusions were preordained by the composition of the Commission --national testing tied to standards was pronounced as desirable and feasible. Among those who worked to produce the document were Chester Finn, a member of the ‘Standards Task Force’, and then Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch. Bush I proposed legislation incorporating several key recommendations proposed by Raising Standards for American Education. His proposals, however, were blocked by the Democratic controlled Congress backed by the Black Caucus and a coalition of national civil rights organizations and children’s advocates led by  FairTest. 

It is important to note that long before Bill Clinton took office as president in 1992, ESEA had become a legislative umbrella for a very wide array of federal programs including Title 1, bilingual education, rural education, school libraries, computer technology, science and mathematics education, programs aimed at equalizing female fitness and sports programs in schools, school safety and anti-violence, anti-drug and sex education, Head Start and health and civic education among others. Clinton also proposed a version of national testing, (called Goals 2000) but it too was defeated by the same coalition of liberal Democrats and civil rights and fair test advocates, this time aligned with their political enemies, anti-Clinton Republican conservatives and religious fundamentalists, led by then Senator John Ashcroft. The influence of the far right over policy increased dramatically after the 1994 mid-term election, the so-called Republican Revolution that for first time in 40 years gave control of the House of Representatives to Republicans. It also marked the takeover of the leadership of the GOP by the far right. Though Clinton was forced to back down on national testing, he salvaged several key provisions that strengthened the testing /standards movement and set the stage for the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act by authorizing grants to universities and professional associations for writing ‘content standards’ and to states that adopted statewide standardized student testing aligned to ‘content standards’.

While G.H. Bush’s and Clinton’s efforts to install national testing were derailed, G.W. Bush’s effort succeeded.  His testing requirements were added to the 2001 renewal of ESEA that he renamed the No Child Left Behind Act. His appointment of John Ashcroft as Attorney General silenced him and defused other right wing Congressional critics of national testing. Bush also attached two riders that that had little to do with education but appeased the right wing.[6]  He also captured the support of liberals Ted Kennedy and George Miller and other liberal leaning Democrats with a  promise to fully fund all of the Act’s provisions. (A promise not kept) and of  the Democratic Leadership Council (Clinton  ‘new” Democrats,  pro-globalization ‘moderates’) who are staunchly committed to national testing. Finally, G.W. Bush proposed a way to circumvent a chief stumbling block of the two prior efforts to install national testing. Rather than imposing a new set of national tests that would in effect override existing or recently installed state standardized assessments, the states were allowed to develop and maintain their own systems of assessment.[7]   

The No Child Left Behind testing regulations are the prime instrument for centralizing and nationalizing control It requires states accepting Title I funds (all do) to adopt so- called ‘content standards’. These must be ‘aligned’ to a system of statewide standardized testing and school ranking. These so called content standards, it should be noted are not benchmarks or generally stated standards; rather they are mandated  specifications of curriculum content.  In practice is government-mandated curriculum  in basic school subjects, reading and language,  mathematics, and science . NCLB also requires that every child in every public school be fully proficient in these by the year 2014 as measured by state’s standardized tests.  The federal government must approve the states system of testing as well as the specific numerical targets for making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) toward that goal.  There are also categories of students named in the Act (For example, English language learners, students with disabilities, the economically disadvantaged, African-American, Hispanic). Should the average score for any of the designated categories of students within a school fail to meet the prescribed AYP targets, the entire school is classified as failing or ‘in need of improvement’ and subject to a set of progressively punitive sanctions. Parents of children in schools ‘in need of improvement’ are promised the option of transferring their children to a successful AYP school, one where all categories of students within a school have met the numerical AYP targets.[8] Title 1 money follows the student so when a student moves to another school Title I monies earmarked for the failed school shrink.[9] Schools designated as failing are also required to use its Title 1 funds to pay for supplementary educational services (SES) for students and transporting them to tutoring sites. SES providers are currently unregulated and schools designated as ‘in need of improvement’ are barred from offering such services regardless of the qualifications and experience of its staff. A school failing to make its numerical AYP targets for three consecutive years may be closed or ‘reconstituted’ with principals demoted or fired, teachers reassigned, and/or school management transferred from the school and district to the state, or subcontracted to the education equivalent of an HMO.[10] Bush attached two other provisions to his proposals: (1) Materials purchased with Title I funds must be approved as scientifically valid, a determination made by federal authorities, and (2) all teachers and paraprofessionals must meet ‘highly qualified’ criteria as defined in the Act. 

These three additions to ESEA ended the nation’s historic commitment to local democratic control, shifting power from local jurisdictions to federal and state governments. Taken together, they turned the original intent of ESEA on its head. Federal and state authorities now can ignore and override basic curriculum, pedagogical, and personnel decisions that for many years by law and tradition rested in local hands --teachers, school-level administrators, and locally elected school boards. It is the effort of the federal government to enforce these three provisions that has drives the bipartisan controversy over NCLB/ESEA  reauthorization among both Democrats and Republicans .

Contact: mailto:hberlak@yahoo.com

[1] Harvard Crimson 11/28/1966

[2]  See  David Berliner & Bruce Biddle The Manufactured Crisis Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America's Public Schools. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley,1995

[3] See Richard Rothstein ‘A Nation at Risk:  Twenty-five Years Later’, April 7, 2008, Cato Institute, Washington DC.   http://www.cato-unbound.org/feed/atom/. Also see G. Bracey [ADD REF]

[4] Not in attendance were classroom teachers, local administrators and elected officials, researchers or public policy experts who questioned the claim that there were significant declines in achievement test scores since the 1960s. All decision-making sessions were restricted to the governors, Lamar Alexander and Department of Education officials and staff.

[5] The report was delivered to Congress on January 24th, 1992 several days after Clinton was inaugurated as president. The report was shaped and written during the Bush I Administration.

[6]  The first is a provision that requires schools to provide US military recruiters access to names and addresses of military eligible high school students; the second, grants the Boy Scouts and other approved patriotic groups who may discriminate, the right to rent public school space thereby nullifying numerous state and local public ant-discrimination accommodations laws and statutes  

[7]   States are, also, required to participate in the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in order to develop a  baseline for  comparing state testing results.  

[8] The option is rarely exercised for a variety of practical reasons, including that often there are no successful AYP schools within a reasonable commuting range. Also, when this option is invoked it is mostly by students who meet the proficiency goals thus further depressing AYP scores in the original school.

[9]  NCLB promises additional funds from the state for the ‘failing school’ for the purpose of   boosting AYP related test scores.  The funds are generally inadequate and when  granted must meet federal specifications.    

[10] Because each state uses different tests, the scores are not comparable from state to state, NCLB requires that states participate in biennial National Assessments of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing in reading and mathematics for fourth-and eighth-graders. Results are used to create a national statistical yardstick in order to recalibrate state testing results thereby creating a de facto national yardstick for comparing state test results..