Bob Schaffer Looks Back at 10 Years of NCLB Federal Education Failure

Yesterday I peered ahead at the upcoming legislative session. Today I take a look back at a landmark piece of national education legislation. Yes, I sometimes get confused like that. Anyway, it was 10 years ago this week that then-President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). A whole decade? That makes me feel pretty young, as I wasn’t even a gleam in my daddy’s eye at that point — whatever that means.

To commemorate the occasion, Colorado’s own State Board of Education chairman Bob Schaffer penned his thoughts on the National Journal Education Experts blog. At the time NCLB was debated and passed Congress, Schaffer was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. So his perspective on what he describes as “an enormously bad idea” is especially insightful:

Ten years later, there are few who deny NCLB has been a failure. Anyone who expected otherwise back in 2001 was either fooling himself, or more likely, didn’t read the law.

The law actually accomplished just what it was written to do – spend enormous sums of money the federal government didn’t have and hadn’t yet printed, provide perverse incentives for lower standards, and turn school administrators and teachers into dutiful federal bureaucrats instead of the productive local educators they had previously been free to be.

Ouch. Schaffer explains elsewhere in his piece how the original idea under the name “No Child Left Behind” promoted by President Bush was a good concept that morphed into a bad program through the Congressional amendment process. He also argues that the marginally positive benefits that have followed NCLB were “well underway through state initiative” and likely would have come to fruition without the joint efforts of Bush and the late Senator Ted Kennedy.

Like I said before, I haven’t been alive long enough to know just how true that is, though his argument certainly has merit. Back in the day, my Education Policy Center friends tried to make the most of the federal legislation here on the ground in Colorado. In 2003 Pam Benigno wrote the influential, groundbreaking and frequently-cited issue paper No Child Left Behind Mandates School Choice: Colorado’s First Year. In the end, sadly, the nearly toothless and incomplete federal legislation failed to fulfill the promise, notwithstanding the best efforts of many.

For a slightly different point of view, you also should check out Kathleen Porter-Magee’s somewhat softer assessment that the law primarily fell short because of weak implementation that failed to upgrade from the NCLB 1.0 scheme. I sort of get her comparison of NCLB to the iPod, since my dad sometimes lets me play with his.

Congress may some day get around to reauthorizing the major education legislation — whether tweaking it or starting over from scratch, I don’t know. But here’s hoping that lawmakers take heed to the lessons of why NCLB failed to fulfill the lofty expectations.