Michael Petrilli was a U.S. Department of Education associate assistant deputy secretary who helped promote the education reform law. But as Bush officials were hailing the law on its fifth anniversary Monday, blogs buzzed about an article Petrilli released Friday.
"I've gradually and reluctantly come to the conclusion that NCLB as enacted is fundamentally flawed and probably beyond repair," Petrilli, the current vice president at the education reform-minded Fordham Foundation, wrote for the foundation's The Education Gadfly news site. "NCLB has 'changed the conversation' in education . . . But let's face it: It doesn't help the dedicated principal who is pulling her hair out because of the law's nonsensical provisions."
Petrilli's criticism was a sea change. He characterized himself as a "true believer" in the law, which can withhold federal funding from schools if too many students flub standardized math or reading tests.
Although Petrilli spent five years promoting it, he said he had doubts about aspects of the law from the beginning. Among them: requiring districts to hire only "highly qualified teachers" who had degrees in their subject areas, and allowing states to define "proficiency" as they saw fit. "Other flaws," Petrilli wrote, "took me longer to appreciate."
He still agrees with the spirit and goals of the law, but realized the federal government can't force states and school districts to do things they don't want to do and "it's impossible to force them to do those things well."
"Using sticks and carrots to tug and prod states and districts in desired directions has proven unworkable," Petrilli wrote. "Instead of this muddle, the feds should adopt a simple, radical principle: Do it yourself or don't do it at all."
Petrilli wasn't the only one critiquing the law on its birthday. Several groups used the occasion to promote or pan the law, which is due for congressional review this year.
A Harris poll in December found that 57 percent of Americans would support renewing the act. Of the 2,300 participating adults, 61 percent of Republicans, 60 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of Independents voiced support.
Bush has characterized the act's renewal as a chance to forge common ground with Democrats. During a Monday morning speech to education and business leaders, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings highlighted the law's successes and called reauthorization "one of the President's top priorities."
Similarly, Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat and the incoming chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has called renewing the law "a very, very high priority."
Yet in a Fordham poll of Washington "education insiders," 11 of the 12 respondents were betting reauthorization would stall until after the 2008 presidential election. The insiders also didn't expect major changes, saying tweaks to the law would likely formalize pilot programs already under way.
Those forecasts haven't slowed NCLB opponents, who began calling for an overhaul before Democrats took over Congress. In November, Utah's state schools superintendent, Patti Harrington, urged Utah's congressional delegation to demand revisions.
Such calls increased as Monday's anniversary approached, most notably with last week's statement from the Forum on Educational Accountability. The group, which calls for major changes in the law, comprises 100 national advocacy groups, including the National Council of Churches, the National Urban League, the NAACP and several national education associations.
The consortium outlined 14 changes it wants to see. Among them: replacing "over-reliance on standardized tests" with "multiple achievement measures," replacing "arbitrary proficiency targets" with goals based on success rates in the most effective public schools, and increasing funding to cover "a substantial percentage" of costs incurred by states and districts.
The League of United Latin American Citizens, which joined the forum last year, worries funding for other worthy programs gets squeezed out because of the federal Education Department's obsession with NCLB.
"There are many other factors that go into creating an excellent educational environment," said Brent Wilkes, the league's executive director. "There needs to be a more holistic approach and it can't just be all about the test."
* NICOLE STRICKER can be contacted at 801-257-8999 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 became law on Jan. 8, 2002, and is key to President Bush's education policy. Its complex provisions place a number of restrictions on schools aimed at guaranteeing progress for even the lowest achieving students. But in essence, the law requires that individual schools demonstrate progress toward meeting specific achievement goals in order for those schools to continue to receive federal education funds set aside to help disadvantaged children.