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No Child Left Behind?
A Faculty Response to President Bush's Education Bill

Harvard Graduate School of Education
June 1, 2002

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Commentaries in this Series
 Nothing New in Assessment Policy (Dan Koretz)

 A Serious Civil Rights Issue (Gary Orfield)

 Good Intentions, Many Pitfalls (Paul Reville)

 Funding to Repair Rather than Re-Create! (Milli Pierce)

About the No Child Left Behind Act

On January 8, 2002, President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act, opening a new chapter of education history in the United States. Developed by a bipartisan team of legislators, the act mandates that states establish tough new academic standards, improve teacher quality, and create safe schools, among other measures. It also allocates a surprising $26.5 billion to public K-12 education—a 20 percent increase over last year.

Despite decades of attempts to foster educational equity, big barriers remain: the achievement gap between students of color and white students has widened since 1988; although violence has been on the decline, 37 percent of American students still report the presence of gangs in their schools; and debates still rage over school vouchers and charter schools, both of which divert funding from public school systems.

Can President Bush's bill address these and the many other complex dilemmas inside America's public schools? Will the plan benefit the students it seeks to serve? Will the act help or hinder student learning? These are the questions we posed, with one expert opinion from our faculty on an aspect of the bill featured here.

Paul Reville is a faculty member in the Administration, Planning, and Social Policy area at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He also serves as executive director of the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform, and as chair of the Massachusetts Education Reform Review Commission. Here, he comments on the thorny issue of testing students—and schools—to raise achievement.

Lecturer Paul Reville
Lecturer Paul Reville (photo: Harvard News Office 2002) 

The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act seeks to close the achievement gap, rid the school system of persistent underperformance, and guarantee that all children, regardless of background, receive a quality education. It's hard to argue with these intentions; any reformer would gladly embrace them.

But implementing the act may be so difficult as to undermine all of its good intentions. That's because the act features a convoluted scheme of federal-state power sharing on a much broader system of assessment and accountability than ever. It requires states to gather more information on student achievement (through standardized testing) at more frequent intervals. At the same time, it gives the federal government the power to dictate how quickly states' and schools' scores should rise, and which punishments will be meted out to those who fail to meet the mark.

Now, it makes good sense to require states to gather more information. This will provide educators with the data they need to guide instruction, while offering the public real facts about barriers to learning in schools.

But the problems arise when the federal government, which has no influence on the variable standards set by each state, mandates the method for measuring improvement, the pace of improvement, and the consequences. We are not a nation of mandatory federal standards or tests, and we are deeply ambivalent about a federal role in education. Yet, we now have two separate levels of government dictating either the standards we have to live up to or how quickly we must live up to them—and all of this with little or no enforcement capacity.

It is not clear that more tests and mandates dictated by the federal government will boost state and local capacity to educate all their students to reasonably high levels. We do need Washington to pay attention, to support state reforms, and to insist on rigor and fairness—but a new labyrinth of requirements may just overwhelm all of our good intentions.

For More Information
More information about Paul Reville is available in the Faculty Profiles.

What do YOU think?

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