Eight months into the Obama administration, the White House has been mute on its intentions regarding the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, George W. Bush’s signature education accomplishment—and a statute that nearly everyone in America believes needs a makeover. Of course there’s no consensus as to what that makeover should look like—one reason that Messrs. Obama, Duncan, et al have been avoiding it, even though the 2001 statute is already two years overdue for reauthorization. The bipartisan team that Bush 43 assembled behind this measure on Capitol Hill is long gone and the Obama team has been plenty busy with other matters. In a speech today , Secretary Duncan makes clear that he’s in no hurry to dive deep into NCLB. He’s inviting more input and advice as to how to set it right. (Never mind that there’s already a five-foot shelf of books and studies regarding NCLB’s shortcomings and needed repairs.) But he is sticking a toe into these turbid waters, aligning himself with the goals of this contentious statute and declaring that we must use its current tools—including standardized testing—until we develop better ones. He tipped his hand a bit more when he declared—correctly, in my view—that “we should be tighter on the goals… but…looser on the means for meeting those goals.” Translation: America needs national standards and measures but should leave it to states and districts to operate their own schools. The former is apt to draw catcalls from the GOP side of the aisle while the latter will alarm his fellow Democrats. Mr. Duncan and the President face plenty of heavy lifting on this front—whenever they get serious about it.
This commentary is also posted at the National Review Online’s “The Corner” blog.