NCLB Will Never Silence its Critics

Most policies have ideological opponents who will be critical regardless of outcomes, but No Child Left Behind seems to suffer from a uniquely acute case of this condition.  A recent paper in the American Educational Research Journal illustrates how much ammo NCLB opponents have in their arsenal. The paper uses the physics concept of an attractor basin to qualitatively analyze the differences in incentives and behavior of schools that are far below, near, or far above the AYP mark.

What caught my eye are the reported downsides for schools near the AYP mark, or far above the mark. First, schools that are near AYP or in the “attractor basin”:

We also saw evidence of more strategic responses: shifts in the curriculum toward tested areas and in choices regarding which students receive teachers’ attention. These shifts are ones our attractor basin model predicts: The law encourages extra attention on the topics and students that are weak enough that they may not measure up but strong enough that they can be remediated with reasonable effort.


For schools in the attractor basin, the increased effort and attention that NCLB has stimulated comes at a cost of a narrower curriculum and uneven attention across students in the classroom

And now the “good” schools far about the AYP cutoff:

There are two areas where NCLB has the potential to adversely affect the incentives of high performers. First, it invites complacency among those who are passing the test. Second, some high-performing school communities are afraid of the negative effects that the choice provision in NCLB will have on their schools’ performance.

See what’s going on here? NCLB is bad for schools near the AYP cutoff because it will lead them to devote resources inequitably, and NCLB is also bad for schools far above the cutoff because they will not be sufficiently incentivized to make changes. Change is bad, but so is not making changes. The paper is laudably neither pro nor anti NCLB, but the types of seemingly mutually exclusive criticisms it finds evidence for hint at the near impossibility of winning over stubborn NCLB critics.

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