You might expect, then, that California would have been in a good position to handle a key NCLB provision, that each state rank the proficiency of each of its schools. Instead, when that provision kicked in last year, California stumbled. The agency in charge of the task, the California Department of Education, gave failing grades to schools that were actually decent performers, and passing grades to schools that were, in fact, failing. By the time the department realized the errors, it had already released the rankings to the media. The department quickly pulled the lists from its Web site, prompting a flurry of newspaper corrections, as papers across the state retracted stories they had run days earlier. “It was chaos,” says Bill Padia, who heads the department’s policy and evaluation division.

The problem, it turned out, was that the law required the policy and evaluation division to make the calculations much faster than it had ever done before, using an assessment formula many times more complex than it was used to. Padia’s office simply didn’t have the capacity to rank, in a matter of days, 9,000 schools with 6.3 million student test scores broken into the dozens of different categories required by NCLB. Making matters worse, California, like many other states, was in the midst of a financial crisis; Padia’s staff had been cut by more than one-quarter the previous year. And because the NCLB law has begun to create intense demand for a limited pool of experienced and knowledgeable testing experts, some of Padia’s best people had been poached by testing companies and affluent school systems that could offer higher salaries. Once two-thirds of his 31 staffers had held doctorates, but by the time of the NCLB debacle last summer, only two did, one of whom was Padia himself.

Similar problems have surfaced in a host of other states, from Florida to New Hampshire to Idaho. In December, Illinois’ state education agency acknowledged that it had mislabeled at least 300 schools under NCLB. Connecticut discovered that the private firm scoring its tests made so many errors that the state had to halt publication of its school ratings. Michigan had to delay issuing schools report cards for months as it struggled to meld federal scoring requirements with its existing evaluation system, a common problem in many states. When the cards arrived, few Michigan parents could understand them.

All over America, parents, educators, and politicians are in an uproar over NCLB, a law Bush has been hoping to run on in ’04 as the signature example of his “compassionate conservative” philosophy. During the early Democratic primaries, presidential candidates competed with each other to denounce the law–even though many of them, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.), had voted for it. Yet the anger at NCLB is now as bipartisan as its support once was. In January, the Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly to ask Congress to exempt their state from the law. Last month, as a protest against NCLB, Utah’s Republican-led legislature voted to spend no state money implementing the law.

To some extent, the backlash against NCLB isn’t surprising. For decades, state and local governments that control public education in America have allowed thousands of low-quality schools to go on, year after year, providing substandard education to millions of students, especially poor and minority students. NCLB is the first serious attempt by Washington to hold states, districts, and schools accountable for remedying the situation. Little wonder that many are rebelling on behalf of the status quo.

But there is more to the backlash than hidebound resistance to change. Teachers and parents legitimately complain, for instance, that the simplistic, largely multiple-choice tests that many states use lead to a dumbing down of what’s taught in the classroom. Such problems are beginning to be aired in the media and may well be dealt with by Congress. But there is another problem, little discussed, which if not dealt with could undermine the nation’s entire school reform effort. As the California testing fiasco shows, the state agencies that NCLB relies on to carry out its sweeping mandates simply don’t have the capacity to do so. Like 220 volts of current being forced through a 110-volt kitchen appliance, the system is becoming overloaded, and the smoke is rising.

And if these agencies are overmatched now, just wait. Identifying failing schools is, in fact, one of the least demanding, of the law’s rolling mandates. Students in schools that don’t make the grade must be given the option of transferring to another, better public school. Then they must be provided “supplemental services,” like private tutoring. If the schools’ scores still don’t improve, then the state must directly intervene. “Each state,” the law declares, “shall establish a statewide system of intensive and sustained [assistance] and improvement for local education agencies and schools.” The law prescribes a series of actions each state must take to turn around failing schools, from ensuring that the schools have “improvement plans” and “support teams” to, if they continue to under-perform, assigning them to outside managers or even taking the schools over and firing the entire staffs.

These interventions by the state are where the rubber of NCLB will really meet the road. Again, California is ahead of most states in this area. For several years, its department of education has been putting together “turn-around teams” of highly trained veteran teachers, and administrators to go into the state’s worst-performing schools and make necessary changes. Last year, these teams intervened in 24 California schools. But here’s the rub: This year, according to the results of the NCLB tests, California is supposed to start fixing another 600 schools. Two years from now, that number is expected to grow to 3,600 of California’s 9,000 schools, as NCLB’s progressively-tougher testing standards push more California schools into the “failing” category.

State departments of education have never been equipped to do the kind of work that NCLB now demands of them. Since the emergence of full-scale public education systems more than a century ago, the organizing principle of elementary and secondary education has been decentralization, known colloquially as “local control.” The U.S. Constitution gave authority over public education to the states, but states delegated most of that authority to local school districts. And the nation’s 14,500 districts have sought aggressively to preserve that power.

The federal government began to play a significant role in public education when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, a Great Society program designed to help needy students. But while piping money into disadvantaged schools, the law did little to make state governments more responsible for academic outcomes. State education departments served mainly as conduits for and accountants of federal funds; it was officials at the district and school level who were responsible for whether there was actually any learning going on in the classrooms. And despite big increases in federal spending for low-income schools, achievement levels there hardly improved.

Attitudes began to change in the mid-1980s after the federal government’s “A Nation at Risk” report warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity” in America’s schools. In 1989, at a summit meeting in Charlottesville, Va., then-President George H.W. Bush and the nation’s governors, led by Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, broke with the tradition of local control, establishing national education goals. In 1994, then-President Clinton bolstered the nascent national movement for school accountability by signing legislation that mandated that states set achievement standards, measure student performance against them, and reform schools with students that didn’t make the grade.

But the 1994 law didn’t require states to move quickly to crack down on schools that didn’t measure up. That happened only in 2001, with the passage of NCLB. Today, state education agencies, not local school boards, are responsible for reshaping their education systems to produce higher student performance. Overnight, state regulators were to become reformers. “It’s a complete shift” in the departments’ roles, says Abigail Potts of the Council of Chief State School Officers, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that represents the 50 state departments of education.

But while the expectations and responsibilities of state education bureaucracies have suddenly and utterly changed, their actual structure has not. Consider the California State Department of Education, which occupies a modern, six-story office building on N Street in Sacramento, around the block from the state capitol. With a payroll of 1,452, it’s a sizable agency. But it is hardly a leviathan, considering it manages 41 percent of California’s core budget and is responsible for overseeing a system that educates one out of seven American school children. Moreover, the vast majority of those 1,452 employees spend their days in activities that have little or nothing to do with school reform. One hundred and fifty-five finance experts, for example, share the second floor with 144 special-education regulators; there is a whole division of lawyers, a team to draft safety standards for school buses, and many technologists. Sequestered in a section of the fourth floor are the 100 or so statisticians, experts in school leadership and others–about 7 percent of the department’s staff–in charge of the department’s most important work under NCLB: identifying and turning around California public schools that are failing to educate their students effectively. And California has a far bigger school reform staff than almost any other state.

Some state education agencies have proven effective at intervening to improve failing schools, at least when the number of such schools has been kept at a manageable level. Two states in particular, Kentucky and North Carolina, produced among the nation’s best achievement gains during the 1990s using a strategy similar to NCLB’s: comprehensive testing to identify failing schools against clear student achievement standards, followed by state intervention for those that performed the worst. Since 1997, North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction has sent “assistance teams” into 56 of the state’s most dysfunctional schools. All but four have been lifted from the bottom category of the state’s school performance rankings, and more than half have gone to the top. In Kentucky, schools deemed failing are assigned a school-improvement expert for two years. Over 90 percent of the 356 failing schools that have participated in the turnaround program since its inception a decade ago have met Kentucky’s student achievement standards within two years.

The North Carolina and Kentucky programs make clear, however, that turning around failing schools is labor-intensive–and not inexpensive (both states spend about $6 million to turn around a small number of schools, and currently have neither the money nor the staff to do much more). Some accountability advocates suggest that the threat of sanctions or the loss of students alone can be enough incentive to improve school performance. In practice, however, such schools typically still require outside help to do it. For schools in the worst shape, which are often in chaos, with leaders who are weak and ineffective, stronger incentives to do the right thing won’t make much difference. Says Ted Stillwell, Iowa’s commissioner of education: “You cannot just give them a booklet on how to be better schools.”

But NCLB doesn’t give states much help in providing this kind of assistance, certainly not on anything like the scale required. As a result, the legislation threatens to overwhelm even those that have made real pro-gress fixing failing schools. Why? Simple arithmetic. Under NCLB, instead of a dozen schools, North Carolina faces the prospect of having to turn around 500–nearly a quarter of all the state’s schools, says Elsie Leake, associate superintendent for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. The situation is the same in Kentucky. “We’re set up to handle tens of schools,” says Director of Assessment William Insko. “NCLB is requiring us to work with hundreds.”

There’s a reason why NCLB is causing so many more schools to be labeled as failing (some 26,000 schools, or one in four nationwide, failed state standards this year and face sanctions if they do so again next year). It is that the new federal law requires far more detailed demographic analysis of test scores than most state-mandated tests do. Under NCLB, each school’s scores must be broken down and reported by gender, race, family income, etc. Students within each group must make progress every year towards a prescribed benchmark. If any one of the groups fails to make its “adequate yearly progress” target for two years in a row (and it can be a different sub-group from one year to the next), the whole school is graded a failure. As a result, many schools that once thought they were doing well because, say, their white middle-class students were getting decent test scores, are now being labeled as failures because some subgroup within the school, say Hispanics, isn’t doing nearly as well. NCLB was specifically designed this way to make sure schools would not be able to ignore the academic needs of these disadvantaged groups. It is why several civil rights groups supported the law, and why the president can rightly claim that the law’s intent is to “leave no child behind.”

The ambition of the No Child Left Behind law, then, is right on target. The problem is that states are a long way from having the capacity to carry out the law’s mandates. By identifying so many schools as failing–as North Carolina and Kentucky suggest, the numbers are often exponentially more than even the most rigorous state accountability systems turn up–NCLB has also created a pair of perverse incentives for states and schools to act in ways directly counter to the law’s intent.

First, by targeting such a large portion of the nation’s public schools, NCLB has hyper-charged demand for a very limited supply of people who have the competence required to turn around low-performing schools. But because neither state agencies nor low-income districts which need them the most can afford them, these experts are being employed by wealthier districts, who need them the least. The Boston Globe recently reported that NCLB has stirred a bidding war among suburban schools in Massachusetts for superintendents and principals. As those executives’ salaries have spiraled upwards, they have been lured away from working-class and urban schools.

The second perverse incentive is caused by the fact that the framers of NCLB did not set national standards for what schools would have to meet each year to avoid the law’s sanctions. They left that task to the states. Some states chose to set high standards, while others, in an effort to avoid the impact of the sanctions on large numbers of their schools, lowered their standards, sometimes into the basement. Thus, the way the law works, states with high standards will soon have to deal with huge numbers of failing schools, while states with low standards will have fewer such schools to deal with and thus will appear to be doing a far better job, when in fact the contrary is true.

Can anything be done to keep the No Child Left Behind law from undermining its own goals and creating chaos? The answer, fortunately, is yes. First, we need a short-term fix. The rules governing the calculation of sanctions on schools not making the grade should be changed so that the states are required to provide assistance only to the schools that need that help the most. States shouldn’t drown in an attempt to intervene in a vast number of schools, many of which have missed the present requirements by inches rather than miles. These new rules should be structured in a way that removes perverse incentives to lower standards. States that have set their standards very low in the attempt to avoid sanctions should be required to address the needs of roughly the same proportion of all their schools as states that have maintained high standards.

Second, we need a long-term solution, which can only lie in building the capacity of the states, districts, and schools to reach the kinds of goals contemplated by the framers of NCLB. This is not a simple matter, but a vast, man-to-the-Moon kind of challenge. It means finding people with the data management experience to build and administer the very complex systems called for by the law. It means recruiting experts who can help create truly world class curriculum standards so that teachers will know what they are supposed to teach and students will be able to reach the standards. It means identifying and training thousands of educators who have succeeded in improving their schools to provide on-site assistance at other failing schools, and recruiting still others who can take those schools over if the current staff cannot or will not rise to the challenge. It means creating and expanding networks of talent-laden organizations–universities, think tanks, for-profit and non-profit school companies–that have the skill, experience, and management capacity to turn around individual schools and entire districts. And it means greatly strengthening the capabilities of the agencies that will coordinate this massive effort: state departments of education.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate just how unprepared these departments are for the task, or how vital the federal government’s role in preparing them will be. To take just one example, each state will need teams of specially trained statisticians to oversee the development and administration of state tests. This is crucial not just to improve the very low quality of many tests currently in use, but also to avoid the kind of errors that have befallen California and other states in the last six months. Right now, however, the nation’s education schools produce just 36 graduates with these skills each year. These testing experts are the equivalent of Arabic-speaking U.S. soldiers and spies in Iraq: We simply don’t have enough of them, and the lack of such talent is costing us dearly. Washington needs to mount a crash effort to create that talent.

Over the last few months, there has been a loud political back-and-forth in Washington and on the campaign trail about whether NCLB has been sufficiently funded. Democrats have charged that the administration hasn’t provided as much money as it promised. Bush administration officials argue that the federal government has increased education spending enough over the past several years to permit states to hire all the additional staff they need to respond to NCLB.

Neither side quite gets it. In the long run, making NCLB work will almost certainly require far more money than the Bush administration, or even many Democrats, have imagined. But currently, notes Rich Cannon, a consultant who tracks NCLB funding, millions of dollars in new money for school reform are being “largely wasted,” used “mostly to plug holes in district budgets” rather than to strengthen the capacity of state agencies to assess and turn around failing schools.

Unless something is done soon, the already shaky public support for NCLB will crumble. There are those who would welcome this outcome. Some liberal defenders of the education establishment never liked the accountability movement and are rooting for NCLB to fail. Many conservatives have never accepted the idea that Washington should have any role at all in local schools; others are eager to spin an eventual failure of NCLB as evidence that the public education system is unfixable, and vouchers are the only alternative.

The truth is that failing schools can be turned around, as North Carolina, Kentucky, and several other states have shown. There’s no reason to think that these successes can’t be greatly expanded upon if the lawmakers in both parties who vigorously supported NCLB become just as energetic in fixing it. They can start by making sure the key actors–the state departments of education that are supposed to lead the whole effort–have the capacity to do so.

Marc S. Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a Washington-based non-profit that consults with states and provides technical assistance and staff development to districts and schools. Thomas Toch is director of the NCEE Policy Forums program and a frequent contributor to The Washington Monthly.

Marc S. Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a Washington-based non-profit that consults with states and provides technical assistance and staff development to districts and schools. Thomas Toch is director of the NCEE Policy Forums program and a frequent contributor to The Washington Monthly.

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Follow Thomas on Twitter @thomas_toch. Thomas Toch is director of FutureEd, an independent think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.