Lots of stuff at the start of the weekend marking the 10th anniversary of NCLB’s signing by President George W. Bush, from Dana Goldstein (the best short summary I have read recently) to Andrew Rotherham (the best short defense) to the public release of a draft, GOP-only bill in the House scrapping much of NCLB’s machinery, and much more likely to come.
Under the radar are two notable if slightly-askew perspectives, one by Kathleen Porter-Magee and another by Jay Mathews, each suggesting that NCLB’s rigidity was a fatal flaw. Porter-Magee argues that unlike Apple’s constant redesign of the iPod, federal policymakers carved NCLB’s provisions in stone, making it impossible to redesign iteratively. That’s not entirely true: various regulatory waivers have created options first for (awkward) growth models, differentiated accountability, and now complete escape… er, the Duncan waiver gambit. But each step has been creaky, making the whole beast more unwieldy–definitely not sleeker or more elegantly functional (so Porter-Magee’s central point holds to that extent). Mathews points to the data-intensive, blame-light approach of the former superintendent in Arlington, Virginia. Data mattered, but not as a cudgel. I’ll take that with a substantial grain of salt given it’s a short column with an appealing storyline, but both Porter-Magee and Mathews are making the case that NCLB was flawed in its rigidity.
So what has Education Trust and its organizational allies prized most about NCLB and worried the most about in (or more properly out of) Duncan’s waivers? The rigidity. As an historian, I understand: policy structures feed political dynamics, and the evaporation of the supposed Washington consensus has to be unnerving for those who worked very hard in the 1990s to develop a coalition in favor of strict numerical targets and consequences. Those targets suffered terribly from politician’s logic (as do current defenses of NCLB), and in the end the coalition was more fragile than it appeared ten years ago. Flexibility on the front end would have been a wiser strategy.