When President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation into law in 2002, one thing was strikingly clear: politicians loved it almost as universally as educators hated it.
The legislation was central to the Bush administration's domestic policy agenda, yet Democrats embraced it as well. Congress passed NCLB by margins that seem inconceivable today (384-45 in the House of Representatives; 91-8 in the Senate).
Politicians praised NCLB because it promised to measure student achievement in math and reading, through regular standardized tests, and to use that data to hold schools "accountable" for reducing academic achievement gaps between students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. These gaps in educational achievement have long troubled Americans, especially those who hoped that public schools and education could serve as a great equalizer in American society.
Educators tended to take an opposite view of these developments, believing that they cheapened the educational process, forcing teachers to "teach to the test," and that NCLB blamed schools for social problems beyond their control: such as poverty, urban decay, racial inequalities, and disparities in health care.
Little has changed in eight years.
Barack Obama's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has described NCLB as a "toxic brand" because of significant opposition to its approach. Instead, he has offered a re-packaged "Blueprint" for the law's reauthorization, which was released in March, 2010.
But while Duncan sketched a host of changes to the controversial law, the Blueprint preserved the basic approach of using standardized test scores to hold schools "accountable" for student achievement—especially the roughly five thousand lowest-performing schools in the nation.
And that does not sit well with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Weingarten complains that the administration's plans "put 100 percent of the responsibility on teachers and give them zero percent authority." Likewise, Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association (NEA), sees "too much top-down scapegoating of teachers and not enough collaboration" in the plan.
As was the case in 2002, politicians across the ideological spectrum—from Newt Gingrich to Al Sharpton—support the current educational reforms, while those who actually work in schools remain suspicious, feeling scapegoated by those politicians.
The accountability agenda of No Child Left Behind, and the fierce debate it has generated, did not arise out of nowhere in the Bush years. The conflict over accountability has historical roots that reach back to two developments of the 1960s, and especially to the relationship that developed during that time between public education and the African-American civil rights agenda.
First, black educators, parents, and activists during that era fought to hold urban schools more accountable for the achievement of their children, who were often given a second-class education and were dismissed by white Americans (and white teachers) as uneducable. NCLB's focus on teacher and school accountability has its origins to some extent in this African-American civil-rights activism.
At the same time, social scientists in the 1960s began to sharpen our understanding of how school achievement is powerfully shaped by social and economic conditions beyond the direct control of schools and teachers. These ideas that universal educational success is possible only through broader social and cultural transformation have often overlapped with those of the school-focused activists, but they have also come to loggerheads—as they have done most recently.
Understanding that history helps explain why the primary division over education reform is not between Republicans and Democrats but between those who work inside schools and those who make policy for those schools on the state and federal level.
Both the reformer politicians and the school-based educators contribute important perspectives that are grounded in historical experience. At stake on both sides is the question—so foundational to the meaning of American democracy and society—of what role the schools play in creating equality of opportunity for all Americans.