Origins and Purpose of "No Child Left Behind"

[This is modified from a speech I gave as part of a panel presentation at the San Francisco State University Faculty retreat at Asilomar, CA, on January 26, 2005.  It is based on the research I did for my dissertation.]

When Ted Kennedy and George Bush agree on something, one needs to worry about who the man behind the curtain is.  After doing research for my dissertation (which is now a book) it became clear to me that the men behind the curtain are the members of the Business Roundtable.

No Child Left Behind represents only the latest manifestation of a bipartisan bandwagon of standards based advocates – a bandwagon built in the summer of 1989 by the top 300 CEOs in our country.  At this meeting, the Business Roundtable CEOs agreed that each state legislature needed to adopt legislation that would impose “outcome-based education,” “high expectations for all children,” “rewards and penalties for individual schools,” “greater school-based decision making” and align staff development with these action items.  By 1995, the Business Roundtable had refined their agenda to “nine essential components,”  the first four being state standards, state tests, sanctions and the transformation of teacher education programs.  By 2000, our leading CEOs had managed to create an interlocking network of business associations, corporate foundations, governor’s associations, non-profits and educational institutions that had successfully persuaded 16 state legislatures to adopt the first three components of their high stakes testing agenda.  This network includes the Education Trust, Annenberg Center, Harvard Graduate School, Public Agenda, Achieve, Inc., Education Commission of the States, the Broad Foundation, Institute for Educational Leadership, federally funded regionally laboratories and most newspaper editorial boards.

By 2000, many states legislatures, however, were balking at the sheer size and scope of what corporate America was demanding.  The Business Roundtable took note of this resistance when publishing, in the spring of 2001, a booklet entitled Assessing and Addressing the “Testing Backlash”: Practical Advice and Current Public Opinion Research for Business Coalitions and Standards Advocates.   My guess is that the timing of this renewed effort to “turn up the heat” involved getting federal government into the act by aligning the federal educational policy with the Business Roundtable’s state-by-state strategy.  Gene Hickock, the US Under secretary of education specifically charged with implementing NCLB, said as much to a gathering of CEOs in the spring of 2003 at the Milken Institute’s annual Global Conference. As you read the following quotation you might want to count how many times Hickock uses the word “leverage.”  He said:

One of our hopes for NCLB . . .  is that 30 years from now, we will look back on this era as having been one in which a reformation in American education took place.  One of the virtues of NCLB is leverage, leverage at the state. . . [and] at the local level . . . We don’t’ mind being the bad guys, in terms of the ones pushing it, but I think our concern is that we are short sighted in how much leverage we could use.  I think it’s leverage that could create a revolution in American education . . . we have been talking about these issues forever . . . it’s time to make sure we move from discussion to action.   I am very concerned that we will . . . underestimate the potential that we have to redefine everything. (see Milken Conference 2003 website for complete transcript)

It’s all about “leverage” in order to “redefine everything” –NCLB is to provide that extra pressure on recalcitrant states to get with the BRT program.  And if you look closely, NCLB is merely a more draconian version of California’s 1999 Public School Accountability Act.  So, corporate business leaders in states who are already “with the program” can play good cop to Hickock’s bad cop, while those states still balking are now under tremendous pressure to come up with state legislation that conforms the Business Roundtable’s educational agenda.

But, why “redefine everything”, as Hickock so eloquently puts it? One way to answer this question is to look at the historic relationship between American business and educational reform.  When you do, you can see that we are currently in the midst of the second major transformation of the US public school system.  When Horace Mann convinced the Massachusetts state legislature in 1837 to establish the very first state board of education, the US was still primarily an agricultural economy, but one undergoing the first pangs of an industrial revolution.  By 1890, America was an urban industrial economy.  The working class (most of them foreign born) were in control of city governments.  This was not acceptable to the new corporate business class who proceeded to systematically eliminate working class representation from city government, including school boards.  The newly formed, business-dominated school boards proceeded to create the modern comprehensive schools, an important part of which was the introduction of standardized, norm-reference tests.

Since the 1890s, these tests, along with the factory like conditions of public high schools, have been central to fulfilling one of the major purposes of our public schools.  In an industrial economy, working class students need to be tracked into vocational education and middle class students into college prep courses.  This is one reason why we find standardized tests to be more strongly correlated to socio-economic status than to any other variable.

Many of you might have noticed that in the last 20 years we have been living through the transition from a manufacturing economy (of the last 100 years) to a service economy.  Along with this transformation of the economy has come the transformation of the public school system from one that had tracked students into vocational ed and college prep to one that now is tracking students into college prep and dropouts.  I am not sure that this was entirely foreseen by the Business Roundtable CEOs in 1989, but I am sure they are satisfied with the current results. 

I suspect that the threat from Japanese car manufacturers in the 1980s prompted our CEOs to circle the wagons around a specific educational agenda.  Their rhetoric has always been about getting everyone to college to meet the growing demand for knowledge workers.  But the facts have always been clear that the number of jobs requiring a college degree have not increased nor are thy projected to do so.  So, I suspect that business, experiencing a crisis of profits in the eighties, wanted to increase the number of college educated engineers and computer programmers, not because they expected to see more Americans earn higher salaries but, instead, they wished to increase the supply of college educated workers well beyond the need for them, thereby paying them less.  As it turned out, the CEOs couldn’t wait for high stakes testing reforms to achieve this end.  So, the CEO’s persuaded congress to dramatically expand the H1-B visa program in the nineties.  This allowed CEOs to import high tech workers from other countries paying them half of what their newly unemployed American counterparts had been paid.  Today we are just outsourcing the work.

Fifteen years after high stakes testing was first conceived, the Business Roundtable CEO’s have vowed to stay the course in spite of the modifications in the original rational for this “revolution in American Education” as Hickock expects it to be.  I believe they are doing this, in part, because they are stubborn and out of touch with reality (or they are mistaking the statistics regarding the fastest growing occupations with the largest growing occupations), but they find the effects of the policy very convenient.  Originally concerned about the historically high dropout rate undermining the myth of education as the key to social mobility, the CEOs now seem conveniently locked into their own high stakes testing propaganda:  If a student drops out, it is clearly the fault of his or her teacher (and the dramatic decline in education funding has nothing to do with increasing dropouts).  That students continue to dropout and get pushed out in higher and higher numbers is really not a bad result giving the reality of the job structure of the new economy.  In 2003, 2 million people worked at or below the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hourEight percent of those had college degrees.  Only 30 percent did not have a high school diploma.  BRT allies such as Education Trust insist that "there is increasing consensus among economists (and among families) that virtually all young people need the knowledge and skills necessary to benefit from postsecondary education" (EdTrust Mission Statement on website, viewed December 31, 2004). Standards advocates, however, are ignoring the lack of cachet that a college degree is supposed to bring to the job search and the unprecendented polarization that has accompanied the transition to the new "knowledge economy."

Among the 10 major occupational groups, employment in the 2 largest in 2004—professional and related occupations and service occupations—is projected to increase the fastest and add the most jobs from 2004 to 2014. These major groups, which are on opposite ends of the educational attainment and earnings spectrum, are expected to provide about 60 percent of the total job growth from 2004 to 2014 (Monthly Labor Review, November 2005, p. 71). [my emphasis]

Forty-two percent of workers in the largest 30 occupations are in the bottom quartile of annual median incomes ($20K and below). Only 20 percent of the workers in the largest 30 occupations work at jobs requiring a college degree or above (table 3, Ibid., p. 77). (also see Greenhouse)

In the 90's only the people at the very top and very bottom made any real improvement. Wages for full-time male workers, for example, have grown only 1.3 percent since 1989. The richest 10 percent of American households, economists point out, have 34.5 percent more financial wealth than the average family. These changes have persisted through Democratic and Republican administrations and began at the same time in Britain, even before Margaret Thatcher's market-oriented policies, Mr. Wolff said, indicating that they are not simply the product of economic policy but reflect deep structural changes in the economy. The leading hypotheses are technological advances, increases in trade and imports, growing immigration and declining union membership (Alexander Stille , Grounded by an Income Gap, December 15, 2001 ).

The introduction of test prep curriculum for so-called "low performing schools" neither prepares the students in these schools for college nor succeeds in teaching many of them to read, write and do arithmetic.  But this is perfectly fine since those who drop out or are pushed out end up in jail, at Walmart or McDonalds, where check-out clerks don’t need to read or do math since scanners automatically record and tally the price and the cash registers tell cashiers how much change to give back.

Not only do working class and poor students, especially those of color, not learn to read and write, they don’t learn the kinds of skills that would allow them to challenge the direction the Business Roundtable CEO’s are taking this country.  Throughout American educational history, there have been educators and activists who have argued against education as merely legitimizing the sorting of students into job categories.  Some have created schools based on the joy of learning, or the need for students to be life-long learners.  Others have created schools that taught students how to be active agents of social change, or to be skilled citizens in a democratic society.  One effect of high stakes testing, one that I am sure the CEO’s are pleased with, is that the historic public debate over what the goals of education should be, a debate going back 2500 years, has been eliminated.  Instead,  raising tests scores has become an end in itself, one that I hope we can begin to question today, with  questions that might lead to some action not only against the destructive effects of NCLB but also against those of California’s Public School Accountability Act and high school exit exam.

by Kathy Emery