But "community control" was not just about power; it was also a struggle over who was responsible for low achievement. Black students were not learning in white-run schools, and in New York City and other urban centers, African Americans believed that more pro-active and responsive leadership would make the difference.

African-American educator Marcus Foster, of Philadelphia, captured this emerging sense of accountability when he wrote, "Inner city folks . . . want people in there who get the job done, who get youngsters learning no matter what it takes. They won't be interested in beautiful theories that explain why the task is impossible. The people believe that the job can be done. And they want it done now."

From Reagan to NCLB

Education policy since the Reagan years is often described in terms of a shift from "equity to excellence"—that is, a shift from desegregation and other policies aimed explicitly at racial equality, to a focus on academic achievement and standards. This is true in significant ways. No Child Left Behind, with its focus on holding schools accountable for measurable results (including the ultimate penalty of shutting down chronically low-performing schools), represented a triumph for those who came to apply a bottom-line business mentality to the world of education.

But it is also true that the struggles of the 1960s were about "excellence" all along—excellence and higher achievement for all students, including many who previously had been written off as uneducable.

Echoes of the 1960s were plain to see in the passage of No Child Left Behind. When George W. Bush decried "the soft bigotry of low expectations"—when he and the Congress created a law that broke down achievement data by race and socioeconomic status in order to shine a light on achievement gaps—they took their cues and rhetoric from black educators and activists in the civil rights era.

That is not to say NCLB has been a cause for celebration among those who fought for equal educational opportunity in the 1960s—or for many other people. The law has been tremendously unpopular for many reasons.

Among the most important: it established what nearly everyone saw as an impossible deadline (2014) for all students to test at a "proficient" level. It narrowed the curriculum by prioritizing basic skills in math and reading to the exclusion of nearly every other subject. It led many states to "dumb-down" their tests in order to reduce the number of "failing" schools. And, even with such downward pressure on standards, it led to the labeling of one in three American schools (including many high-functioning ones) as failing.

NCLB has also failed to produce big improvements in student achievement or in racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), sometimes referred to as the "nation's report card," math and reading scores for both blacks and whites showed modest gains from 2003-2007—but the gains were smaller than those made in the three years prior to implementation of NCLB.

Roughly two-thirds of American students are still not "proficient" as defined by NAEP (which most serious observers believe to be a more reliable standard than the widely varying state tests).

Meanwhile, the gap between black and white scores was narrowing at a faster rate in the three years before NCLB than in the years since—and it is still a substantial gap (at least 26 points on a 0-500 scale, in all subjects, at each tested grade level).

And yet, despite NCLB's failure to make a dent in the achievement gap, its declared focus on this goal has taken a firm hold in national debates over school reform, regardless of the shift from a Republican to a Democratic administration. In those debates, in fact, the very designation of "reformer" now tends to be reserved for those who advocate standardized testing to hold schools accountable for reducing or ending the achievement gap. The "reformers" are described, and they describe themselves, as being in opposition to excuse-making "traditionalists"—that is, teachers, their unions, and other supposed defenders of a failed system.

The continuing cachet of "accountability," and the aura of civil rights activism that surrounds it, is strikingly evident in the work of a national advocacy group called the Education Equality Project (EEP). EEP was founded during the 2008 presidential campaign by a group of urban school superintendents, political figures, and education activists who wanted to influence the future of No Child Left Behind and other policies of the next president. In particular, EEP is dedicated to "one clear goal: Close the achievement gap in public education now."

EEP ties this goal to a larger history of African-American struggle in education. Its number one Statement of Principle reads: "Fifty-six years after Brown vs. Board of Education, forty-two years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and twenty-seven years after the publication of A Nation at Risk, we must confront a shameful national reality: If you are an African American or Latino child in this country, the probability is high that our public education system will fail you, that you will not graduate from high school, that your ability to function successfully in the twenty-first century economy will be limited, and that you will have no real prospect of achieving the American dream."

Or, as EEP co-founder Al Sharpton has said, the achievement gap is "the civil rights issue of the 21st century."

Sharpton has been joined by more than 140 signatories to the Education Equality Project. Two of them—Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings—are the Secretaries of Education who implemented No Child Left Behind during the Bush years. Another signer is the current Secretary, Arne Duncan.

How do the "reformers" who comprise EEP propose to end the achievement gap? Nearly all of the organization's proposed steps focus on factors within schools and school systems—for instance, an effective teacher in every classroom (and fewer union restrictions on firing ineffective ones); expansion of charter school options for parents; and the need to hold teachers, principals, and administrators "accountable for student progress."

The reformers' impatience with educators is understandable, considering the long history of low expectations and underachievement among working class students and racial minorities—and the inspiring example of individual schools and educators that do produce greater-than-expected achievement for such students.

Still, as the critique of low expectations gained steam in the 1960s, so did another current of thought and research that calls into question the accountability agenda ushered in by No Child Left Behind.

The Limits of School Reform

NCLB ignored what more than fifty years of social science research has made clear: what goes on outside of schools, in homes and neighborhoods and social and economic life, is as important to school achievement, if not more so, than what goes on inside.

A defining moment in the development of this research was a massive U.S. government study, Equality of Educational Opportunity (1966)better known as the Coleman Report, after lead researcher James Coleman. The Coleman Report suggested that factors associated with a child's family and social class background—the education level of the parents, for example, or the degree of exposure to books and other cultural materials in the home and community—had a greater impact on achievement than did resource "inputs" like the amount of school funding or the quality of the facilities.

The Coleman Report echoed the "cultural deprivation" thesis, which had been controversial but persistently influential since the early 1960s. As such, it drew criticism from some black activists and critics who saw it as "blaming the victims" of racially biased schools and an unequal social system.

Analysts still debate the interplay between family background, social structure, and educational achievement. However, since the 1960s, historians and sociologists have reinforced the basic thrust of the Coleman Report, emphasizing social and structural forces that shape the lives—and the educational achievement—of racial minorities and low-income students.

After World War II, de-industrialization and other aspects of the "urban crisis" trapped many African-American and Latino families in urban poverty, and the effects of poverty—for example, inadequate nutrition and pediatric care, or greater transiency due to unstable housing—have had a negative impact on student performance in school.

At the same time, racial minority and low-income students have tended to lack what sociologists call "cultural capital"—the knowledge, skills, resources, and attitudes that some parents (especially those who know the unwritten codes of the dominant culture and can afford such amenities as summer camps and private lessons) are able to pass on to their children to ensure their academic success.

The social science research that has followed from the Coleman Report is, in a sense, a corrective to Horace Mann: it has showed that schools are not, in fact, the "great equalizer"—at least not by themselves.

Even among charter schools that have been celebrated for making inroads on the achievement gap, the lesson seems to be that only unprecedented commitments of resources will do the trick.

In the one-hundred-block area of New York City known as the "Harlem Children's Zone," for instance, Promise Academy charter schools do not raise achievement by themselves; they are part of a more ambitious social experiment that provides health clinics, parenting workshops, and other community services aimed at supporting children from birth through college graduation.

The nationwide KIPP schools network, or "Knowledge is Power Program," thrives on extended school days, after-school tutoring, Saturday sessions, and summer school. Students have their teachers' cell phone numbers and are obligated to call them at night when they get stuck on a homework problem. Turnover is high among the young, enthusiastic teachers the schools tend to attract. As critics tend to point out, KIPP is impressive, but it could not be replicated on a large scale without a massive commitment of resources.

Just as the accountability agenda is well-expressed by the Education Equality Project, the legacy of social research on achievement gaps is captured in an initiative entitled the "Broader, Bolder Approach to Education." Like the Education Equality Project, "Broader, Bolder" emerged during the presidential campaign of 2008, and it gained attention because of the list of educational luminaries who signed on in support. (In this case the list was skewed more toward researchers than to politicians and other "reformers.")

Some people—notably Education Secretary Arne Duncan—have signed both statements. And indeed there is overlap, especially in the passion with which both groups call for an end to racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps.

But whereas EEP calls on schools and school systems to eliminate the achievement gap, the "Broader, Bolder" group emphasizes that school improvement strategies, by themselves, are inadequate. We will not break the enduring correlation between socioeconomic disadvantage and low student achievement, they argue, unless we combine school reform with policies that improve the health, the early childhood learning, and the out-of-school experiences of underachieving children. Such policies, needless to say, are expensive—much more expensive than annual standardized testing.

In addition to spotlighting a wide range of factors that influence school achievement, the "Broader Bolder" proposals raise important questions about the very definition of educational "achievement." Arguing that NCLB has narrowed that definition to basic skills and cognitive growth, they call for an expanded sense of purpose in education, one that includes the development of physical health, character, social development, and non-academic skills.

Obama's "Blueprint for Reform"

The Obama administration's Blueprint for revamping NCLB contains a number of proposed changes. One of Duncan's main priorities has been to shift from punishments to incentives. Under the new plan, annual testing in math and reading would continue, but only the bottom 10 percent of all schools would face "warnings" or sanctions (including, in many cases, the firing of all staff). The other 90 percent—many of which have been declared "failing" under the current law—would enjoy greater flexibility and incentives to broaden their curricula.

Meanwhile, the Blueprint also recognizes the impact of economic disadvantage on achievement, in the form of incentives for creating "Promise Neighborhoods" modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone.

And yet, as critics such as Richard Rothstein (a "Broader, Bolder" advocate) have pointed out, the part about "Promise Neighborhoods" is contradicted by the part about getting tougher on the nation's worst schools. Those lowest performing schools have the highest concentration of disadvantaged students; according to the logic of "Promise Neighborhoods," they need extensive services in order to succeed. Yet, regardless of whether they get such services, the staff is likely to be fired if test scores do not show improvement.

In this sense, the Obama Blueprint seems to maintain the NCLB practice of holding educators solely responsible for academic achievement (the big difference being that middle-class schools will now be under less pressure).

In fact, in one key respect the Obama Administration's brand of accountability goes a step further than NCLB: it seeks to tie teacher evaluation directly to standardized test scores. Already, under the administration's much touted $4 billion "Race to the Top" program, the chance to win competitive grants has been limited to states that are willing to buck the teachers unions on this controversial new policy.

As we've seen, the belief that public schools should be social "equalizers" is rooted deeply in U.S. history—in the vision of Horace Mann and, more recently, in the unwillingness of the civil rights movement to let schools off the hook for achievement gaps.

Arne Duncan captures that view when he says that the children in the low-performing schools "can't wait for incremental reform. They need radical change right now—new leadership, new staff, and a whole new educational approach…we have a moral obligation to save those kids."

No one would argue with that. The question that has plagued education reform for over half a century has been whether that "whole new educational approach" comes only inside the school building, or in attempts to deal with the larger questions of socio-economic inequality.