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.

Schools, Opportunity, and (In) Equality

No Child Left Behind is an expression of the widespread American idea that education is key to opportunity in America, and in this sense it is part of a tradition that goes back to the founding of public school systems in the early nineteenth century.

The "father" of public education, Horace Mann of Massachusetts, saw many purposes for state-supported school systems, including the Jeffersonian idea of making educated citizens for democracy. But perhaps his most enduring idea was that schools would be a "great equalizer of the conditions of men." Education "does better than to disarm the poor of their hostility toward the rich," wrote Mann; "it prevents being poor."

The idea of schools as a social equalizer has been a powerful one in the United States. However, it has also fueled a sense of disappointment among many Americans for whom education did not pave the way to equality and opportunity—in particular, among racial minorities and those of low socioeconomic status.

The difference between the ideal of American public education and its often disappointing realities can best be brought into focus by looking at the experience of African Americans. Even as Horace Mann pioneered the notion of free public education in the mid-19th century, most blacks were not only denied an avenue of social advancement through education, but were stigmatized as an intellectually inferior people.

As a result, educational achievement has been a core value and political goal for African Americans, especially since emancipation. As the historian James Anderson and others have shown, academic achievement—particularly the acquisition of literacy—was a way for African Americans to transcend racist assumptions and to assert themselves as free and equal citizens.

The abolition of slavery brought significant progress in the African-American quest for education and literacy, but blacks continued to find their educational opportunities to be seriously limited. In the North as well as the South, many attended segregated schools, which, contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, were not "equal" in terms of resources. Meanwhile, those who attended integrated schools (mainly at the junior and senior high-school level in the North) were often steered into separate, non-academic curricular tracks—a practice that was reinforced by the rise of racially biased IQ tests.

In 1935, the African-American scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois expressed the frustration of many blacks over their dismal educational options. Segregated schools had inadequate facilities, poor salaries, and teachers of uneven quality—but at least black teachers treated black students "like human beings."

Just a few decades after co-founding the NAACP on an integrationist platform, DuBois concluded that it was better for black students to be taught by members of their own race than to enter white-run schools and be made into "doormats to be spit and trampled upon and lied to by ignorant social climbers, whose sole claim to superiority is ability to kick 'niggers' when they are down."

DuBois's reluctant rejection of integrated schooling got him kicked out of the NAACP. Still, his sentiments were shared by many African Americans whose children fell victim to low expectations in white-run schools.

Ruth Wright Hayre was a leading black educator in Philadelphia from the 1940s through the 1990s. She recalls how her high school guidance counselor tried to steer her away from a college-prep program and into home economics because, the counselor said, there were "just not any opportunities for colored girls for scholarships or professional jobs."

Later, as one of only two black teachers at Sulzberger Junior High School in the 1950s, Hayre bristled when white colleagues openly disparaged black students in her presence: "You can't teach them anything," they would say; "I'm going to transfer where I can teach children, instead of animals."

African-American educators like Ruth Hayre devoted their lives to raising expectations of black students and fulfilling the dream of social advancement through education. As of the mid-twentieth century, though, the public schools were not an "equalizer" in the way Horace Mann had envisioned, so much as an obstacle to true equality.

Education in the Age of Racial Liberalism: 1940s-1980

The blatantly unequal academic expectations that had dominated the history of public schooling began to come under wider criticism in the 1940s, a shift that gained powerful momentum in the 1960s, and eventually helped fuel the creation of No Child Left Behind.

Changes in education grew out of larger social changes, especially since World War II. From the 1920s through the 1960s, millions of southern blacks migrated to the nation's big cities, leading to a transformation of race relations and urban schools. African Americans sought new opportunities in urban workplaces, neighborhoods, and schools. White residents fought hard to exclude them. [For more on this process, see the recent Origins article on Detroit and the Fate of Urban America.]

As the cities became a racial battleground, the combination of liberal social science and the war against Hitler's genocidal racism did much to discredit the racist ideologies (that is, biological explanations of racial inequality) that had dominated American society since slavery and Reconstruction. In public life (though not among all citizens and communities), racism gave way to a new "racial liberalism": an increasingly widespread acceptance that it was time to begin to address the civil rights agenda, to do away with segregation, and to stop openly expounding racist justifications for policy.

The shift from racism to racial liberalism was epitomized by the massive study of American race relations, An American Dilemma, published in 1944. Sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation and led by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma defined racial inequality as a vicious circle of white "prejudice" and black cultural "pathology." Inequality went from being an inevitable condition to one that could be altered—especially through education.

Postwar liberals thus rejected the biological racism of the early twentieth-century and replaced it with an emphasis on the educability of all children, regardless of racial or social class background.

Out of this milieu came the "compensatory education" programs that became a key element of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" (including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESEA, the forerunner of NCLB). Compensatory education was based on the idea that low achievement among urban black children was not a matter of race, per se, but a problem of poverty and social isolation in declining urban environments. It was up to the schools to "compensate" for the educational and cultural "deprivation" of children in the "ghetto."

As American politicians and educators focused attention on what they saw as the social and cultural causes of achievement gaps, however, black activists and educators increasingly pointed a finger at white-run schools to explain why African-American performance lagged.

In 1966, for instance, activists in Oakland, California formed the Ad Hoc Committee for Quality Education and began to publicize what came to be known as the "achievement gap": students in predominantly black schools had less than half the average percentile rank of their counterparts at all-white schools on standardized math and reading tests. Poor students, regardless of race, actually tested worse as they advanced from grade to grade.

In a report on their findings, the Oakland activists quoted education critic John Holt to suggest that the schools themselves were to blame for unequal achievement: "The conventional wisdom of our day has it that…the children's lack of ability and skill is not their fault, but the fault of their environment, their neighborhoods, above all their homes and families. . . The diagnosis is false. The most important reasons for the failure of slum children's education lie not in the children but in the schools."

The impulse to hold schools responsible for student achievement was also a major factor in one of the most notorious educational conflicts of the 1960s, the battle for "community control" of the schools in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of New York City.

In one sense, Ocean Hill-Brownsville was a power struggle: black parents and community activists gained a measure of "local control" over their neighborhood schools and used it to fire white teachers who were members of the United Federation of Teachers. (After a series of strikes that divided white and black New Yorkers as bitterly as any event of the 1960s, the UFT prevailed in re-instating the teachers.)