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Public Opinion on the No Child Left Behind Act

Sunday's New York Times had a fascinating article on the huge difficulties administration officials are having selling the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in rock-ribbed Republican Utah. To say they're getting a skeptical reception would be to considerably understate the case.

In light of this reception, which has been duplicated in numerous states around the country, Democrats may be tempted to run hard against NCLB and say, implicitly or explicitly, that it needs to be gotten rid of. A review of public opinion data on NCLB suggests they should resist that temptation.

Public opinion on public education has consistently shown that the public has a two point program for education reform: more accountability and more resources. The linkage between the two is neatly captured by a result from a 2001 Education Testing Service (ETS) survey. Respondents were asked what the best way to improve the quality of the public education was: more funding; accountability or both accountability and funding. The dominant response was both accountability and funding (48 percent), rather than simply more funding (25 percent) or accountability (23 percent).

In many ways, this was the premise of the bipartisan NCLB. Backers of the bill, who not only included the Bush administrion and its Congressional allies, but also Democratic liberals like Ted Kennedy and George Miller, maintained that the strict standards set by the law would be accompanied by increased funding that would help schools, particularly those with many at-risk students, meet those goals.

The public for its part, was also favorably disposed toward the bill in the period before its passage. The 2001 ETS poll, for example, reported support levels ranging from 58 percent (funds tied to performance) to 93 percent (funding for K-3 reading) for the very general provisions of the bill, with the emphasis on annualized testing scoring about in the middle of that range (76-78 percent). The poll also found, however, that a large chunk of the public–about two-fifths–did not have any real knowledge about the bill prior to being asked about it on the survey. A 2002 Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa (PDK) poll, conducted roughly five months after passage of the bill, found similar support levels for NCLB’s general provisions, combined with the same lack of prior knowledge of NCLB among two-fifths on the public.

Since that period leading up to and right after NCLB’s passage, however, the bipartisan consensus around education policy has broken down. Critics accuse the NCLB of being inflexible and underfunded and constituting, in many ways, an “unfunded mandate” on the states. Recently, we have had the spectacle of Republican-dominated state legislatures in Ohio, Virginia and Utah severely criticizing the law and threatening to opt out of federal funding to avoid being subject to it.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to gauge how much public support for NCLB has actually shifted due to the lack of knowledge problem and due to the lack of consistent time series data (i.e., the lack of questions about NCLB that have been asked in the same way from passage of the bill to the current time period). However, there are certainly indicators that the public has serious problems with many specific aspects of NCLB implementation.

In terms of testing, the public, in a 2003 Gallup/PDK poll, overwhelmingly (84 percent to 14 percent) said that the best way to judge a school’s performance is to see whether students show reasonable improvement from where they started, rather than whether they meet a fixed standard, as specified in the NCLB Act. And, in the same poll, by more than two to one (66 percent to 32 percent), the public thought that a single test, as in the NCLB Act, cannot provide a fair picture of whether or not a public school needs improvement. The public also strongly endorsed the idea (72 percent to 26 percent) that a single test cannot judge a student’s proficiency in English and math accurately. And, in a January, 2004 Greenberg Quinlan Rosner/Tarrance Group/National Education Association (GQR/TG) poll, 67 percent agreed that the law was unfair because it labels schools as “failing”, if one group of students doesn’t do well on a test, even if the vast majority do; 71 percent agreed that some kids should be given more time to pass tests for their grade due to differing ability levels; and 89 percent supported a proposal to allow schools to evaluate students’ progress on a number of criteria in addition to standardized tests, including classroom performance and graduation rates.

In terms of sanctions and funding, in a January, 2004 CBS News/New York Times poll, the public, by 58 points (77 percent to 19 percent), opposed using the results of tests to withhold federal funds from those schools where students perform poorly. And over four-fifths (81 percent) in the GQR/TG poll wanted schools to be given more time before penalties are assessed if funding promised by the NCLB has not been given to these schools. In the same poll, by 60 percent to 38 percent, voters supported increased funding, rather than cuts, for schools that are not able to meet federal testing standards.

On the other hand, there is little evidence that the public rejects the law itself or wants to do away with it. General descriptions of the law, particularly its goals and broad emphasis on accountability, continue to elicit strong public support. But it seems fair to say that the public would be supportive of changes that would make NCLB more flexible and better-funded. That's the sweet spot for Democrats in criticizing NCLB--not opposing the act, but seeking to reform it in line with the public's twin commitments to effective accountability and more funding.


this article makes a great point. You don't run against something just becuase it's percieved as the other guy's idea.
What we should campaign for (arguing FOR something is so much more "positive" and "forward looking" than criticizing what's been done) is full funding. Truly we should make "No Child Left Behind" live up to it's name.
As it stands - this act has created more problems and funding shortfalls in our schools - not less. The accountability is a good thing - the resources to succeed have to follow. That is where the Bush administration let us down (on this point - don't get me started on other points...) - it's not the law - it's the follow through. (although one side note - at least as it's been discussed and implemented in KS - part of the concept is that "all schools must be above average" - I realize the president is not a statistician - but that's not possible - all schools can be above a set standard - and that standard can come from an historical average - but all units of a sample cannot be above the sample's average...)

I disagree with most of what the main article here contends. Polls don't always plumb the real sentiments of the public, to be sure, but even so, one can read the poll numbers recited above as painting a very different picture -- one that makes the Bush administration very vulnerable to Democratic charges it has bungled federal aid to education.

1. Large majorities seem to agree the federal government has an important role to play in helping local schools improve. Remember, it was the Republicans in Congress who foiught against creating a cabinet level department of Education.

2. Large majorities agree the federal government should provide more funds to local school districts. But who broke the promise of full funding for NCLB? The Bush administration.

3. Large majorities agree that schools should be held "accountable" but also they should not be subjected to punitive measures if they test poorly. So, who is threatening local schools with loss of funds, and worse, if they test at "D" or "F"? You guessed it: The Bush administration.

4. You don't need a poll to know that at the local level almost everyone feels that improving local schools requires good faith efforts by all ecucation officials to be caring and even handed as they work to improve teachers' and students' skills. But who calls teachers "terrorists"? Who is it who shows no even-handedness? You guessed it.

Few things resonate more with local communities than their neighborhood schools. Few things get people more P.O.'d than having some outsider dump on their school. Never mind that they do it themselves -- they really don't like having some bigwig from Washington do it.

NCLB is a failure because of the way the Bush administration has administered it. Time to save the idea of federal help for the local folks and throw out the bums who can't do it right.

You said:

"General descriptions of the law, particularly its goals and broad emphasis on accountability, continue to elicit strong public support. "

Yeah, no kidding. Just like most people back the "Healthy Forest" initiative, or the "Clear Skies" law. The Bush M.O. is to give a law one name and look, and then make the guts of it do the opposite. On NCLB, you are missing the central point that though the name of this act, and its stated purposes, are supported by the public, the substance of the act is not accountability.

The act is designed not to foster accountability, but to damage and ultimately shutter many public schools and funnel the money to private schools, preferably religious. This become obvious once you understand that the law requires steady annual improvements from every school. Mathematically, it is literally impossible for every school to improve every year. And also, since it is harder for a great school to improve every year, the schools deemed "failing" every year will necesarily include many excellent schools. This recitation of the law's effects may seem incredible to folks who have not had to deal with the statute, but it is true: the law is designed to make sure that the schools deemed failing in any given year include many of the best public schools in the country. It is hard to improve from year one to year two, when you scored great in year one. But that is what the act requires you to show. (And, while NCLB in a narrow sense can be viewed as an unfunded mandate, the lack of money is not the real problem. The problem is that the act is structured to yield schools that can be labelled "failing." The problem is that even with infinite resources, under NCLB many public schools, including many great ones, will be deemed "failing.")

This is a typical Bush bait and switch: say the law means "accountability," but really make it about shutting schools and promoting vouchers and religious education.

So if the Dems are going to support NCLB for polling purposes, fine, but make sure the substance of the "amendments" or "reform" to NCLB in fact gut the law and put in real accountability. In other words, sure, save the name if you want, and the preamble/purpose language is fine; but virtually everything of substance in the law has to go.

If the opinion polls showed that the voters wanted to invade Iran would Ruy be suggesting that the Democrats should refrain from objecting? No Child is an extremely bad piece of legislation. The blogger who compared it to the "Healthy Forests" legislation is right. The intent of No Child is not to improve the public schools; it's to destroy them.
The purpose of No Child is to set the public schools up for failure so the failure can be used to justify withdrawing school funding and providing tax support instead for private schools. It is legislation from the Neocon agenda. If Congress passed a law that required all hospitals to release all patients cured we would understand that the legislation was either stupid or dishonest. No CHild is based on the faulty assumption that schools can raise every child to a high standard of achievement regardless of factors for which the school cannot control or compensate.
Yes, schools need accountability. I've been infuriated many times by the kneejerk protection our union provides for people who are clearly incompetent. I also understand the dilemna of administrators who are supposed to provide leadership but are denied any real authority over teachers. I am a classroom teacher and I am very aware that my profession, like all professions, has dead wood and time servers. I have no problem with exploring ways to hold schools and staff accountable.
But it is a fact that school personel are only one third of the equation. The student and the parents also have responibilites. If the school is actually going to be expected to overcome the effects of bad or inadequate parenting, than tools must be given that are far more Draconian than anything the public would ever stand for. What if, for example, I was allowed to sue a verbally abusive parent? What if I could give the parent a failing grade because the child's homework is never done? Can I be impowered to require a parent to take parenting classes?
No Child isn't fixable. It isn't intended to help anybody, least of all the students. My students understand this. They tell me that it isn't the school's fault is they choose to fail.
I keep harping on the same theme: leadership consists of indentifying problems and articulating solutions until the solutions are understood and supported. Leadership does not consist of refraining from attacking a bad law because polls say the public doesn't understand that the law is bad.

This so-called No Child Left Behind program is the
same empty promise that the Bush administration has made to working class America on every other
"program" purported to make life better for us all.
The biggest beneficiary of the program is the
educational testing industry. It is interesting to note that McGraw-Hill is a major player in this
field, and that the McGraw family are fast friends with the Bush clan. Testing and tracking
the failures of our under funded inner city and
small town educational systems and then further
penalizing those systems for their under-performing results, has the both the cart before the horse and the barn doors closed after the
horses have fled. Better quality education is
achieved by funding the effort properly. This is
self-evident and supported by the success of those systems that flurish in the upper-middle
class enclaves of our country.
The dishonesty of this approach to improving
our educational programs nation wide is matched
by the dishonesty of the so-called achievements of
the Houston, Tx. system during the reign of Gov.
Bush and the duplicitous Ron Paige. The many under
achieving students in that system were merely thrown out so that their lack of achievement would
not lower the city wide performance scores. That
Mr. Paige continues in his position as head of the federal government's educational efforts is,
itself, most indicative of the disregard George
Bush has for the good of the average citizen.

Quayle couldn't spell potato, but I'd like to ask Bush and Paige: How do you spell fraud?

Check out this excerpt from the NY Times, Dec. 3, 2003:
"In recent years, Texas has trumpeted the academic gains of students largely on the basis of a state test, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS. As a presidential candidate, Texas's former governor, George W. Bush, contended that Texas's methods of holding schools responsible for student performance had brought huge improvements in passing rates and remarkable strides in eliminating the gap between white and
minority children.

"The claims catapulted Houston's superintendent, Rod Paige, to Washington as
education secretary and made Texas a model for the country. The education law
signed by President Bush in January 2002, No Child Left Behind, gives public
schools 12 years to match Houston's success and bring virtually all children to
academic proficiency.

But an examination of the performance of students in Houston by The New York
Times raises serious doubts about the magnitude of those gains. Scores on a
national exam that Houston students took alongside the Texas exam from 1999 to
2002 showed much smaller gains and falling scores in high school reading.

Compared with the rest of the country, Houston's gains on the national exam,
the Stanford Achievement Test, were modest. The improvements in middle and
elementary school were a fraction of those depicted by the Texas test and were
similar to those posted on the Stanford test by students in Los Angeles."

While there is little poll evidence that the public rejects the law, this may change as the public becomes more acquainted with the real-life consequences of the law. It's going to hurt the administration. In my neck of the woods, many are wealthy and/or over-educated, yet I find very few who know of anything about NCLB. My sense is that they would heartily support the superficial aspects of NCLB, which would be reflected in poll data.
The real question is: will people experience NCLB consequences before the election? I think the administration is working hard to minimize voter fallout. I'm wondering what else they'll pull out of their hat. The way NCLB seems to be designed may also be in their favor. However, we'll see. I believe more school reports will come out in Aug/Sep, just in time for the election. If it looks anywhere near what is forecast for Minnesota, here is the Democrats' chance to get some of the undecideds on board.

Unfunded mandates are killing public education.
Severely disabled children, including many with no hope of ever attaining any meaningful participation in their environment, are "mainstreamed" into the classrooms.
Teachers are facing classes of 45 and 60 kids, a third of whom are out of control due to factors beyond anyone's control.
All those premature/multiple births and the babies born to crack addicts? Their rates of cerebral palsy and other seriously debilitating conditions are going right on up along with the national debt.
And local school systems are mandated to provide full educational benefits for these kids, up to age 19 or 20 - without the federal funding that was promised and never delivered.
So NCLB is nothing new - just one more bale of straw dumped on the wage-earning folks who pay the taxes and get stuck with the waste and failure of a system that ignores their needs.

Nat has it right. This program is little more than a trojan horse designed to eviscerate public schools.

Ruy's logic is entirely backwards. He looks at the polls, which show Americans support NCLB, rather than the substance of the law. No, you don't attack a program just because the other guy proposed it. But, by the same token, you don't support bad policy simply because it polls well.

Has it ever occurred to Democrats in Congress that, if they made the effort to actually educate the public on this issue, maybe public opinion polls might change? Why is it that Republicans grasp the concept of framing issues but Democrats cannot? Really, is there any issue that Democrats won't concede without a debate?

"But it's popular!"

As a member of an urban school board in a mid-sized city (Kalamazoo, Michigan), I am very familiar with the workings of NCLB. I am also an economist who has done work on accountability for government programs, so I have a perspective from my professional life as well. The fundamental technical problem with NCLB's accountability measures is that they are only weakly related to the actual productivity of the schools in improving student learning. Despite its name, whether a school makes "adequate yearly progress", thereby avoiding various largely punitive sanctions, has nothing to do with whether the students in the school are learning a great deal or nothing at all. Rather, AYP is largely based on the percentage of students in the school who at a point in time are testing above a certain level. In other words, AYP is a measure of average test score levels of students, not test score gains.

To give an example of the problems this causes, consider an elementary school in which many students enter kindergarten already two or three years behind. Suppose also that new students are entering the elementary school all the time from other school districts, and these students also are frequently two or three years behind. Under these circumstances, even if the school is producing test score gains of 1 to 1.5 years in grade level per year in school for most students, the school is likely to have many students who when they take their state test in 3rd or 4th grade will not yet have reached the magic level at which they will "pass" this test. The school will be judged to be an unproductive school that is not making AYP, and the feds and the state will being imposing various sanctions, which can eventually involve replacing most of the staff. But this makes no sense if the school is actually consistently producing test score gains of greater than a year per year in school for the vast majority of students.

In contrast, consider another elementary school in which most students enter already ahead of grade level in reading or math. This school can be producing test score gains of less than a year in grade level per year in school for many students, yet most students will still pass the state test in 3rd or 4th grade. The school will be judged to be making AYP, and no federal or state sanctions will be applied.

This situation is made even more uneven by the subgroup performance requirements to make AYP. Under this provision, each identifiable subgroup must have at least the appropriate percentage passing the state test. However, this provision does not apply if the subgroup is too small for the test score result to be statistically reliable. In Michigan, this statistical cutoff is 30 students. So, if a typical elementary school has 100 or fewer students per grade, then a school only has to worry about meeting AYP for blacks, or low-income students, etc., if 30 or more students who are in the grade taking the test are from one of these groups. That is, only districts with large percentages of low-income or minority students are really affected by this part of the AYP requirements at the school level. If none of the schools in your district has more than 29 low-income or minority students in a single grade, you can make AYP based on your overall average test score levels even if every single low income student or minority student fails the test.

I could go one with other technical problems, but the bottom line is that the current NCLB accountability system has fatal technical flaws. Unless NCLB is revised within the next few years, I believe that NCLB will lead to the demise of any national attempt to enforce standards-based accountability for public education. I am in favor of such accountability if it done in a sensible way, so I am very concerned about this likely outcome. I believe in such accountability because I believe it is essential to maintain credibility for the public school system, as well as putting pressure on improvement for truly unproductive schools. Unfortunately, NCLB is not the right system to do this.

As a candidate, Bush promised to be a "uniter, not a divider," to reach across the partisan divide and find common ground. This is what he was said to have done in Texas. Many moderates voted for him in the hope that Washington would be less partisan.
In developing the NCLB, Bush seemed to fulfill this promise, working with Democrats, notably Senator Kennedy to develop legislation with bi-partisan support. Ironically, in light of later Democratic attacks on the NCLB, it is one of the few (at least I cannot think of others) examples of Bush working to develop a bi-partisan coalition.
The result, in my view, is an imperfect compromise, but still a step forward in pushing states to improve education. Rather than attacking the NCLB, the Democrats would be better served attacking the Bush administration for the lack of other examples of trying to forge bipartisan coalitions to work on other national problems. We have seen much more of the divider Bush than the uniter.

So we like it but the Bait and Switch methods applied in NCLB, Medicare, and even the Iraq War is what we have to point out,,,,We want lots of things but with mandates must come the dollars or else we are being told how to spend "our Money",,,,No Repub can stand for that!!!!

After 10 years of Bush school reform, 67,000 Texas high school juniors failed the TAKS, the state's high-stakes test, this spring and probably won't graduate next year. What's amazing in an election year is that these students weren't bleeped from their school's computer network like in the past. The "Texas Miracle" , the largest falsification of school data in U.S. history was never intended to improve education, but was just a slick political scheme cooked up by the Texas GOP to get Bush elected. No Child Left Behind based on fake data is the WMD in education. States want the NCLB dollars, but they are balking at faking their school data to get it. Once Texas-style computer crime starts in a school, there's no stopping it, and the data is worthless. Texas parents have learned to live with bogus school records. Houston has a dual reporting system: one to fake for Bush's campaign and one for parents so they know how well their kid is progressing in school. I suspect Kerry will relax NCLB standards based on Texas school fraud.