Riding NCLB Off Into the Sunset

At high noon today, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings officially announced her “final regulations” to strengthen No Child Left Behind.  Speaking to a wide range of stakeholders in South Carolina, Spellings focused on issues like high school graduation rates, improved accountability, better parental notification of supplemental services, and greater school choice.

Of course, Eduflack has a lot of thoughts on a lot of this.  But I am most taken by the banner under which this announcement has been made.  These are the “final regulations to strengthen No Child Left Behind.”  If the future of NCLB was left to question in anyone’s mind, the EdSec answered that today.  Today is NCLB’s last gunfight in the ed reform corral.  After all of the talk of reauthorization and improvements to the law, these final regs make clear that, regardless of the political future at ED, NCLB is done.  A new law will rule the land, replacing, and not simply improving or supplementing what was one of the few positive domestic policy legacies of the Bush Administration.
But if we dig deeper here, where is the news?  In terms of high school graduation rates, Spellings is simply validating the process the National Governors Association began a few years ago.  NGA has already secured all 50 states’ agreement to common graduation rate based on the number of ninth graders who graduate high school four years later.  Sixteen states have this common formula in place already, and most of the others are in process.  These regs may “establish a uniform graduation rate” but we all need to realize such a rate has already been established and agreed to by all, and adopted by many.  
As for the rest, Eduflack completely agrees that all parents should have access to information on the supplemental education services and the school choice options available to them.  I was under the impression that was a core plank of NCLB from the start, and had been in place for more than six years now.  Has it really taken us six years to realize and require that parents get clear and timely notice of their options?  If so, where is all of the money that has been poured into SES since its establishment in 2002?
And finally, we have accountability.  Months ago, ED finally demonstrated some flexibility in the establishment of its growth model pilot project, allowing some states a little give when it comes to achieving AYP.  The pilot announcement had real value when announced, both in terms of policy and rhetoric.  So codifying the pilot in these new regs is a good thing.  In fact, it may be the strongest part of the EdSec’s announcement today.
It’s not all bad, though.  For a law that was originally criticized for focusing only on elementary education, these new regs codify the importance of high schools and the growing need to attend to dismal graduation rates.  With both presidential candidates embracing school choice, it is important to get credit for making vouchers and charters a foundation of NCLB.  With concerns about AYP and federal rigidity, it is important to remind all of the flexibility displayed by ED through its pilot effort.  And probably more important than any, today’s announcement reminds all those involved of the importance of parents in the educational process, ensuring we are getting them good information fast so they can make knowledge-based decisions on their kids’ educational paths.  But these new regulations are rhetorical devices, and have little to do with policy or real school improvement.
During my time in Texas, I often heard of the “all hat, no cattle” syndrome.  The New Yorker in me prefers “all sizzle, no steak.”  Regardless, these new regs — greatly hyped for the past week — provide little that is new, little that is innovative, and little that improves.  They are almost a set of defeatist treatises, a reminder to many of the original intent of NCLB (an intent that has, in part, gone unfulfilled) without seeking to make any new changes or new improvements as the law winds down.
Personally, I prefer the westerns where the protagonist fades to black in a blaze of glory, fighting until the bitter end to protect the town and defend its future.  I’ve never been one for the “Shane” ending, with the hero riding off into the sunset, slumped over in a sense of defeat and even death.  Today’s announcement was definitely a sunset ride.  

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