Fixing the Flaws in NCLB
By Charles Weis, Ph. D.
Special to the Mercury News, 10/13/09
There are a lot of big issues revolving around Washington, D.C. these
days—from Afghanistan to health insurance to the lingering effects of the
recession. So, when I traveled with two other California educators to the
nation’s capital recently, with the intent of making a case to improve the
national education policy, I wasn’t all that optimistic that our message would
I was wrong.
Our party-- Darrien Johnson, a principal from Northern California; Jane Russo,
a superintendent from Southern California; and myself, in the role of president
of Association of California School Administrators—went to Washington to lobby
for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and for
repair of some serious problems with its current version, No Child Left Behind.
We spent one morning meeting with the President’s staff in the West Wing of
the White House. After that, we met with members of Congress to urge
reauthorization of the Education Act, and fix a major flaw in NCLB that
otherwise will lump the vast majority of California schools—unfairly and
inaccurately—into a list of so-called problem schools.
The message we initially got from Congress was, “Not now.” There are too many
other things going on, they said. The Education Act is something we’ll have to
deal with a little later.
We were not particularly surprised, though still discouraged. But then
something unexpected happened: We were invited to a stakeholders meeting at the
Department of Education, at which Secretary Arne Duncan announced work would
begin immediately to reauthorize ESEA to fix NCLB. We provided testimony at the
I’m not suggesting our little contingent brought all this about—clearly,
Duncan and the Obama administration have a very definite and ambitious agenda,
and they are not shy about taking on a lot of big things at once. However, I
will say it was surprising, and not a little gratifying, that we started out by
lobbying for an idea that no one on Capitol Hill seemed to support; and we ended
up testifying and hearing Duncan essentially affirm our position.
The philosophical underpinning of NCLB is sound. In California, and
throughout America, our schools must identify underperforming subgroups—whether
by race or socioeconomic status—and then figure out how to lift achievement on a
broad scale. In other words: clearly define the elements of the achievement gap;
then figure out how to get rid of it.
But those goals have become obscured by some serious flaws. As Duncan pointed
out, many states (and California is not one of them) set their standards too
low. They could point to a high rate of success as big numbers of their students
met the standards. But the students themselves were ill-served by these
cynically low expectations.
California has had the opposite problem. By setting standards high—with the
federal mandate that all subgroups meet these high standards—it won’t be long
before the vast majority of schools simply cannot meet the steep rate of
improvement required to keep them out of “Program Improvement” status. Even as
many schools consistently improve their performance, they face punishment for
failing to reach unrealistic goals.
Another flaw of NCLB is that it focuses on math and reading, to the exclusion
of anything else. Given this, it’s hardly a surprise that our schools have
neglected areas such as science, social studies and the arts. This was one area
I addressed in my remarks at the hearing. Our students need to gain
critical-thinking skills in a range of subjects. That is key to their success in
the global economy of the future.
Duncan acknowledged the flaws in NCLB. He and his staff plan to visit all 50
states to gather input on ways to fix it. As a long-time educator who has seen
many reform efforts handed down from above-- often without giving adequate
consideration to feedback about their long-term effect-- I find that effort
Even more encouraging: this time around, I feel that someone is actually
Charles Weis is the Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools.
Date last updated: October 13, 2009