It is enough to give any observer of American politics intellectual vertigo. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings heads a department that, 10 years ago, many Republicans vowed to abolish in order to limit federal intrusion into a state responsibility. Yet George W. Bush's administration has increased the department's budget by 40 percent -- more than the defense budget. Had Sept. 11 not happened, Bush's administration might be defined primarily by its education policy, particularly the No Child Left Behind Act. But the nation's reddest state, Utah, where Bush won 72 percent of the 2004 vote, is sounding like South Carolina in 1860: Were there a Fort Sumter nearby, Utah would shell it. Utah has opened fire on a federal target -- Spellings -- to protest NCLB.
Nevertheless, she is serene, and not because the 3,341 artillery rounds fired at Fort Sumter killed only a horse. A sassy Texan -- she can say "We're all good federalists" with a straight face -- Spellings sometimes seems to be spoiling for a fight. She says the lack of serenity in Utah, and some other states, stems from the fact that NCLB is doing what it is supposed to do: reveal embarrassing facts.
To build accountability on a firm foundation of data, the act requires states to measure, with recurring tests, progress toward the "proficiency" of all students by 2014. It also requires states -- Spellings says this is Utah's grievance -- to disaggregate their data to reveal the progress of subgroups, including minority and low-income students, those learning English, and special-education students. This is to prevent states from reporting a general progress that masks certain groups being left behind.
One test shows Utah's Hispanics three years behind whites in the same grades. Hispanic fourth-graders in Utah have worse reading skills than their Hispanic counterparts in all but two states and the District of Columbia.
Connecticut, another state strenuously protesting aspects of the act's implementation, has the nation's highest per capita income -- and large pockets of urban problems. In 2003 Connecticut's African American fourth-graders scored 37 points lower than whites in reading and 33 points lower in math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the "nation's report card" by which states' progress is measured under NCLB. Connecticut's 2003-04 Mastery Test showed a significant disparity between white eighth-graders, who were proficient or advanced in reading and math, and Hispanic and African American eighth-graders.
The theory propounded by its supporters is that by identifying lagging groups and failing schools, the law will agitate business communities concerned about the quality of local workforces and will embarrass governments and parents. Until 2014, when NCLB requires universal "proficiency."
Of course it might as well require lobsters to grow on elm trees. In 1994 Congress, with "Goals 2000," decreed that by 2000 America's high school graduation rate would be "at least 90 percent" and that students would be "first in the world in mathematics and science achievement." Pat Moynihan compared those goals to Soviet grain production quotas -- solemn without being serious. In 2000 the graduation rate, inflated by "social promotions," was about 75 percent. And among students of 38 nations, Americans ranked 19th in mathematics, right below Latvians, and 18th in science, right below Bulgarians.
The problem with American education is not public parsimony; it is the habits and values prevailing in private -- in U.S. households. America has tripled inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending in the past four decades and since 2001 has increased federal K-12 spending 37.4 percent. By now informed Americans know that money is a very limited lever for moving the world of education. And schools reflect the families from which their pupils come -- the amount of reading material in the homes, the amount of homework done, the hours spent watching television, etc.
Hence the importance -- but also the limited power -- of the lever of embarrassment. Spellings expects NCLB's high expectations to be substantially self-fulfilling because she "thinks the best" of people -- parents and school officials -- at the local level. But if they really are as vigilant, diligent and susceptible to embarrassment as she assumes, why do we need the law?
Anyone who thinks parents hunger for greater academic rigor should try to get parents to pay the price -- more dollars for more school days and, even less tolerated, decreased vacation time for little Tommy and Sue and their parents -- of increasing America's approximately 180-day school year, which is 40 to 60 days shorter than in much of the rest of the industrial world. The power of embarrassment, indeed.