Education Next Forum on the Future of No Child Left Behind: Mend It? Or End It?

Contact: Caleb Offley, Hoover Institution/Education Next, (585) 319-4541

STANFORD — The question about what to do with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, an issue likely to be taken up by Congress this year as it is brought forward for reauthorization, took center stage again as the Obama administration sent signals this month that it is planning to strengthen the law, a clear message that the President supports an even stronger federal role in education policy.

The new issue of Education Next (Summer 2009) brings the debate to the public, presenting the opposing viewpoints of education historian Diane Ravitch, who feels the time has come to end NCLB, and Hoover Institution Koret Task Force member John E. Chubb, author of Learning from No Child Left Behind (Hoover Press, 2009), who calls for improving it.

Here’s a sampling:

Education Next: What do we do with NCLB — Mend it? Or end it?

John E. Chubb: “The role that NCLB sets out for the federal government — setting national goals while leaving states and districts to decide how to reach them — is sound, and surely superior to the hodge-podge of state accountability systems that preceded it. The challenge now is to improve how our federal-state partnership works.… We should learn from the law — as it is beginning to help our children learn — and not expect 50 uncoordinated states to get the nation where it needs to be in the demanding world of the 21st century.”

Diane Ravitch: “A few tweaks here and a little tinkering there cannot fix this fundamentally flawed legislation. The time has come to discard it altogether and begin to think afresh about how the federal government can provide useful assistance to states, districts, and schools that are trying to improve. What we need is a clear recognition of the federal role in education and a deeper understanding of the meaning of a good education. Perhaps with a sense of the limits of federalism and of the limitless potential of education, we might be able to free ourselves from the sterility, rigidity, dogmatism, and narrow anti-intellectualism of NCLB.”

Education Next: Has NCLB had a positive impact on student achievement?*

John E. Chubb: “Student achievement has grown much more rapidly in the last decade — the NCLB era — than during the 1990s, especially for the lowest achieving and most-disadvantaged students in the nation. Achievement is what NCLB is all about, so the law has met its most basic test.… Disadvantaged kids are achieving far more today than ever before, and those gains are attributable to higher standards and tougher accountability that began in the states in the 1990s and accelerated with NCLB.”

Diane Ravitch: “NCLB has produced meager gains in achievement. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assesses student achievement in reading and mathematics every other year. Despite the intense concentration on reading and mathematics required by the law, the gains registered on NAEP since the enactment of NCLB have been unimpressive.”

*Education Next Editors’ Note: Because the 2002 enactment of NCLB followed the launch of accountability systems in many states, education experts disagree as to whether or not student achievement prior to 2003 can be attributed to the law. Depending on what year you begin tracking NCLB’s impact on student achievement, its policies have either been a boon or a bust.

Education Next: Is NCLB’s focus on assessment shrinking our schools’ curricula?

Diane Ravitch: “NCLB may in reality be dumbing down our children by focusing the attention of teachers and administrators solely on basic skills. Our students are not being prepared to compete with students from high-performing nations in the world. Many are not getting an education based on a coherent, content-rich curriculum in history, geography, the arts, science, foreign languages, and literature…. If we want a future workforce that is smart, creative, independent, and resourceful, we are not educating to get what we want.

John E. Chubb: “Perhaps the single greatest virtue of NCLB’s approach to assessment and accountability is that it shines a bright light on student performance, as measured against explicit standards of proficiency. The nation finally knows which schools are raising proficiency in reading and math and which are not. Before NCLB, such information was spotty at best. A weakness, however, is that the bright light does not shine on all subjects that matter for kids and their future.”

Chubb and Ravitch also tackle:

  • NCLB’s goal of universal proficiency by 2014;
  • Sanctions for persistently failing schools;
  • NCLB’s “remedy” provisions—including public school choice and supplemental educational services;
  • The best method for defining and measuring proficiency.

Read “The Future of No Child Left Behind: Mend It? Or end It?” available online and in PDF format .

John E. Chubb is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the Koret Task Force on K–12 Education. He is a founding partner, executive vice president, and chief education officer of Edison Schools.

Diane Ravitch, a historian of education, was one of the charter members of Hoover’s Koret Task Force on K–12 Education (1999–2008). She is a research professor of education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College