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Volume IV, Number 2, February, 2006

Bad Design
in D.C.

By Jamie McKenzie (About Author)

With all the talk of intelligent design, we sure could use some in Washington. These days it seems to be in very short supply.

We'd like to see intelligent design of educational policies, but the basic tactics of NCLB are a far cry from intelligent design. A recent report from the Project for Civil Rights at Harvard concludes that NCLB has failed to deliver on its intentions because of basic design flaws.

Quoting from the press release:

"The reports show educators at all levels struggling to implement a dramatic and extremely complex change in federal education policy, which radically alters the role of federal and state governments while imposing unprecedented responsibilities and accountability for test score gains. The reports demonstrate that federal accountability rules have derailed state reforms and assessment strategies, that the requirements have no common meaning across state lines, and that the sanctions fall especially hard on minority and integrated schools, asking for much less progress from affluent suburban schools. The market- and choice-oriented policies, which were imposed on schools "in need of improvement," have consumed resources and local administrative time but have small impacts and are not being seriously evaluated."


Inspiring Vision, Disappointing Results:
Four Studies on Implementing the No Child
Left Behind Act

Authors: Gail L. Sunderman, Jimmy Kim and Gary Orfield

The reports are available on line as PDF files. This article will present a brief summary of major findings, but the reports are worthy of careful reading.

Something precious has been stolen, but its absence is difficult to notice.

Masquerading as reformers, the Washington ideologues are imposing an untested, dangerous approach on schools across the nation.

For a list of the simple-minded, bad ideas being pushed on schools by the Ed Department, see "Weighing the Pig: NCLB as Simple-Minded Con" in the December 2005 issue of No Child Left.

"Trust us. We have it under control."

Despite the arrogant, all-knowing tone of some administration officials in Washington, D.C., some members of this group are among the least competent to serve the American people in decades.

Whether it be disaster relief, mine safety, meat safety, reconstruction of Iraq, reconstruction of New Orleans or the reform of education, this administration has shown little capacity to plan or deliver.

The damage to American education and American children by NCLB is not as easily noticed as damage from a hurricane or flood, but the impact is severe and likely to endure for decades.

Months after Katrina, thousands of families are still waiting for FEMA to deliver much needed trailers, many of which sit parked unused and undelivered in huge parking lots.

In a recent New York Times article, the following data from FEMA was reported on families who still do not have trailers:

Calcasieu Parish
5,648 requested --- 2,890 occupied
St. Bernard Parish
8,023 requested --- 2,077 occupied
Plaquemines Parish
3,498 requested --- 1,364 occupied
Jefferson Parish
21,557 requested --- 11,940 occupied
New Orleans
21,039 requested --- 3,342 occupied
St. Tammany Parish
12,922 requested --- 6,330 occupied
East Baton Rouge Parish
1,929 requested --- 1,180 occupied

(Source by FEMA)(pg. A24)

"Storm Victims Face Big Delay To Get Trailers" By Jennifer Steinhauer and Eric Lipton, February 9, 2006.

The failure of this Administration to protect the victims of Katrina was remarkable, but the damage being done by NCLB will some day rank high on the list of bungled program efforts launched during this decade.

The narrow focus on testing and accountability has ironically led to a kind of theft that is nearly invisible. When combined with badly designed testing systems, this focus gives credit to schools for doing bad things to children.

The reports go into great detail and depth, basing their findings on visits and interviews with schools and school leaders across seven states and a dozen districts.

While the authors point out severe resource problems with NCLB, they identify a number of serious design flaws that threaten to damage rather than benefit schools and children. They find that disadvantaged children are, despite NCLB's claims to the contrary, most seriously impacted by these design flaws.

Design Flaw One - Permissive Definitions
NCLB allows each state to set its own definition for proficiency and pick its own tests but then attaches major sanctions or rewards on schools and states for how they perform on non-comparable tests. This can be seen in the chart below previously published in this journal in "The Performance Gap: What You See Is NOT What You Get." Orfield concludes that "The law was intended to foster high achievement, but given the way it was set up, the states with the lowest proficiency standards looked the most successful. Since no national standard was set and states were free to change their own standards, states could improve their apparent success most easily by lowering the standard."

Source: Rand Study

Design Flaw Two - Poor Test Validity
Because NCLB imposes annual testing on states, there was a huge rush to add to what already existed but little time or money to expand the testing models in a high quality manner. According to the authors of the study, this process undermined the validity of the test results.

Design Flaw Three - Inadequate Resources
The authors cite evidence that the demands imposed by NCLB exceed the resources provided by the Department of Education. But Orfield concludes, ". . . that even with substantially larger resources the adequate yearly progress requirements and subgroup accountability would have created very severe problems."

Design Flaw Four - Lack of Fairness
The authors found that the burdens of NCLB fell more heavily upon the most disadvantaged populations and schools. "Money is being diverted from overwhelmingly minority schools in a process that began in the first year of the program. These schools are facing sanctions and being publicly branded as failures, at much higher levels than schools for the affluent, even if they achieve the same rate of academic growth during a year as their more affluent peers."

Design Flaw Five - Narrow Focus
The authors found that the Federal focus on reading and math interfered with many of the more broadly defined state reform goals and represented a troubling shift in the relationship between the states and the federal government. "Many of the reforms adopted under previous rules, including whole-school reform models, were aimed at changing how instruction was delivered and achieving broad educational objectives, which may or may not have been consistent with a given state test. Under NCLB the emphasis shifts to improving test scores, but only in some subjects."

Design Flaw Six - Ill-Considered Market and Choice Remedies
The authors outline the inadequacies of the choice provisions included in NCLB and show deficiencies in the way supplemental services have been provided. They show how designers allowed ideology to govern the design process rather than heeding the lessons of past experiments and research.

Design Flaw Seven - Dictation from Washington
The authors found that NCLB was imposed from above in ways that often conflicted with previous efforts in states and cities, requiring strategies and setting rules that often violated good practice:

Though it contains many good goals, its implementation to date has been seriously flawed both by internal contradictions in a vast and confusing law and by an insensitive and arbitrary administration more focused on ideology than on knowledge of what works.


The current administration has brought to school reform a level of skill in planning that rivals the skill of disaster relief efforts launched by FEMA in handling Katrina and its aftermath.

The damage being done to American schools and children is monumental because NCLB is badly designed and badly implemented.

© 2006, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved. This article may be e-mailed to individuals by individuals, but all other duplication, distribution, publication and use is prohibited without first receiving explicit permission. Contact for information.