No Framer Left Behind: Why Washington’s experiment in education reform would appall the Founders

Recently, the Senate’s education committee approved a bipartisan rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which for the past 10 years has been subject to immense criticism and served as a springboard for educational reform across the country.  Would the Framers, who set out to create a federal system, be concerned about the national government’s experiment in education reform?

President George W. Bush signs No Child Left Behind Act (Wikimedia Commons)

Education started out as a local enterprise under the Tenth Amendment — which reserves to the states powers not delegated to the national government — but increasingly has shifted toward national control. It is important for us to consider why the Framers envisioned a balanced national policy that could accommodate for local needs and realities.  Is the federal government capable of crafting an education policy that addresses the serious challenges to learning students face on a daily basis?

With NCLB, the federal government has overreached its constitutional power, making teaching less effective. The national mandate that every student in America would pass a state-issued standardized test by 2014, regardless of their circumstances, has been detrimental to many local schools.  Using quantifiable measurements to compare one of the most diverse and largest countries in the world to other nations and then tying these results into funding creates a competitive environment, inappropriately forcing schools to accommodate unrealistic national goals despite local conditions.

National test-score mandates, and now the development of a national curriculum, ignore local realities, a behavior the Framers wanted the national government to avoid. What’s more, NCLB enables state-takeovers, generally leading to school restructuring, such as removing faculty and administration. This has been an excellent avenue for charter school growth. Yet research has shown how these restructures have done more to destabilize, rather than improve, communities and individual academic improvement.

The Framers warned Americans that the overextension of national power is dangerous. Antifederalist writer Robert Yates argued in Brutus I, “the great officers of government would soon become above the controul of the people, and abuse their power to the purpose of aggrandizing themselves, and oppressing them.” Then government officials “will use the power, when they have acquired it, to the purposes of gratifying their own interest and ambition.”

Federal and state officials will tell you that NCLB is working. But data indicating that test scores as well as graduation rates have improved yearly ignores the quality of that education.  Instead of federal support for schools, an unbalanced relationship between federal policy and local challenges has led to a climate of blame and punishment.  We are told that teachers, not socio-economic conditions, are the problem, despite research that continues to illuminate that the achievement gap is connected to wealth.  Even high-poverty schools with impressive gains in test scores do not sustain them, even under the best teachers.

The Framers warned Americans that the overextension of national power is dangerous.

Many education reformers will tell you that the labor unions have bankrupted schools, not a weakened economy that has strained municipal budgets to the breaking point. So, to redirect conversation, federal and state officials use test scores to coerce school districts to highlight improvements and force classroom teachers into the practice of teaching to the test.  Are test scores and a few percentage point increases in national graduation rates worth it?  Is teaching to the test facilitating an environment that is preparing students to be knowledgeable and active, global citizens capable of innovation in the 21st century? We need a more balanced approach.

The Founders envisioned a synergetic national, state, and local collaborative system of government that could address challenging issues. In Federalist Paper #39, James Madison argues that it is “in strictness, neither a national nor a federal Constitution, but a composition of both.” In a letter to a friend in England reflecting on the outcome of the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson emphasized that the states are not “subordinate” to the national government, but rather the two are “coordinate departments of one simple and integral whole.”

Federal funding has proven to be incredibly important for schools in terms of improving special education, providing meals for high-need students, offering professional development, upgrading schools’ technological capacities, and undertaking facility improvements, to name a few.  However, when the national government uses test scores and policy mechanisms to force local compliance, Washington policymakers ignore the wisdom the Framers acquired from studying a thousand years of government structures.

Marc Brasof is the education fellow at the National Constitution Center and serves on the Pennsylvania Council for Social Studies’ Board of Directors.  He is currently pursuing a doctorate degree in education leadership and policy studies at Temple University and teaches pre-service teachers.