Adequacy, Accountability, and the Impact of "No Child Left Behind" (preliminary draft)

Andrew Rudalevige, Dickinson College
Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
October 2005

One canard frequently hurled at the No Child Left Behind Act is that it was a right-wing plot to discredit, and then dismantle, public education. As for hard evidence, however, conspiracy theorists, who live in a fantasy world where NCLB-backer Ted Kennedy is either a Republican pawn or a closet conservative, have little to substantiate their beliefs other than a dubious pessimism that schools are incapable of improving themselves. Back on earth, political scientist Andrew Rudalevige reminds us that, far from dismantling public education, NCLB may well lead to even greater funding and resources. He lays out his evidence in a provocative paper written for last week's Harvard conference, "Adequacy Lawsuits: Their Growing Impact on American Education." His counterintuitive, though ultimately commonsense, argument is that the truckloads of performance data produced by NCLB-style accountability systems provide an edge to litigants filing "funding adequacy" lawsuits in states across the land. As the author says, "By requiring every student to reach proficiency on challenging content standards by 2014, by requiring a 'highly qualified' teacher in every classroom and a variety of interventions when students fail to make progress, NCLB effectively declares that every child can learn, if only given the resources to do so." This declaration buttresses arguments that litigants and legislators were already making at the state level. For example, Maryland's "Thornton Commission," set up to uncover a solution to the state's school finance inequity problems, found that "schools are being adequately funded when the amount of funding provided is sufficient to allow students, schools, and school systems to meet prescribed state performance standards." Through this circular reasoning, states have boxed themselves into a responsibility to help all students achieve high standards - a much tougher task than simply making education available to all. No Child Left Behind only raises the stakes - and, in time, probably, the costs. Rudalevige concludes by wondering whether the odd coalition of accountability hawks and adequacy proponents will stick together through the 2007 reauthorization and beyond. There's every reason to believe that the adequacy crowd will continue to prize NCLB as a boost for their cause; whether supporters of accountability (including conservatives) will feel comfortable aiding the big-spenders of the adequacy movement is another question altogether. Decide for yourself; the draft paper can be found here. You can view all of the conference papers here.

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