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Excerpts from an interview with Michael J. Petrilli, former U.S. Department of Education official

"I served in the Bush administration from 2001 to 2005 and was involved in helping to implement No Child Left Behind (NCLB). I think fundamentally the legislation was trying to put pressure on school districts to focus on closing the achievement gap. The basic assumption is that no matter how poor students are, schools, if they are well run, can get all of their students to proficiency in reading and math. That view is highly controversial. Most educators would argue that it's unfair to expect schools to fix all of society's problems."

"A big assumption of the law was that school districts weren't going to close the achievement gap without a lot of strong external pressure put upon them. People say they care about education; they want the government to do something about it. I think some advocates for poor and minority students would say that without the federal government, we would revert back to a system where white and affluent students get what they need, and the poor and minority students don't. The question is, can the federal government do something more constructive than it is doing now under NCLB?"

"Everything about the education system right now benefits affluent kids at the expense of poor kids. Not only do poor kids come into school with a lot less: less vocabulary, less structure at home, less supportive environments, all the kinds of things that we know kids ideally would get from the ages of 0 to 5. Once they get into school, they also get less. They get fewer of the best teachers, fewer resources, less challenging content. So the theory here is that if we could change that equation and make sure that at least poor kids get the good stuff their affluent peers get, if not more, then we would make some significant progress on closing the achievement gap. That theory hasn't been fully tested yet. It may be that we turn our schools around and they end up doing everything they possibly can and we'll still have an achievement gap but I suspect it will be much narrower than the one we have today."

"NCLB has had both unintended consequences and has failed to live up to its promises. There is a lot of concern that the curriculum is getting narrowed. Subjects that are not tested under NCLB are getting removed from the curriculum and more time is spent on math and reading because that's what is being tested. Now there's some debate about whether that is such a bad thing. If somebody doesn't know how to read it's going to be very hard for them to learn history or science or even math. So you can understand the argument that especially schools serving very poor kids; their top priority has to be getting kids up to proficiency in reading. "

"Now teaching to the test is a little bit of a different idea. Some schools get very focused on the kinds of items tested on a state assessment and they drill their students on those items all year long. So if the state test doesn't require an essay but it does require a two-line response, then the school will, instead of teaching students how to write essays, just teach them how to write a two line response all year long. And this is awful. This is not good education. One way to fix this is to make sure the tests are better, to have higher quality assessments."

"There's been this focus in the rhetoric about getting all students to proficiency in reading and math. But because the law allows states to define what proficiency means, we've had, in effect, a decline in the level of rigor of what it means to be proficient. In other words, we've had a race to the bottom when it comes to our expectations for what students should learn at the very time that, because of economic competition, we need to be raising our standards. And so that has been a major problem under this law. We started with low state standards, low state expectations, and this law has, if anything, created incentives for states to make their tests easier still. And that's a major problem."

"The problem that happens is when schools try that approach throughout the entire elementary school years, they squeeze out all of the rich content that's actually going to both help kids learn what they need to learn, but also become better readers. Once a child has learned to decode the language, the way they're going to become better readers is to understand content. When they get to a test and have to read a passage about dinosaurs or Christopher Columbus, if they haven't studied anything about dinosaurs or Columbus, they're going to have a hard time understanding that passage."

"The soft bigotry of low expectations that is still firmly held in this country, that some kids just aren't cut out for college, for example, because they were born poor. We've got to overcome that. Fundamentally, when you go out and you see schools that are getting it done, it's the most inspirational thing. What they have done is created a culture inside the school that firmly believes, without a shadow of a doubt, that every one of those students is going to go to college, no matter what. And the kids start to believe it too and their parents start to believe it too. And it's that expectation, that all students can succeed, that is missing in so many of our schools and is missing in a lot of our culture."

"The federal government has gotten too involved in the nitty-gritty of education. I would like to get the federal government out of all of that. But at the same time, do the one thing we could do well from a national level and that is to have one common set of expectations for what students should learn and one common way to measure that. So in other words: national standards and a national test. Right now, NCLB has the equation wrong. It combines this federal intrusion over lots of stuff the federal government isn't good at with a very loosey-goosey approach to what students are expected to learn because the states get to decide what that is. We could flip that on its head and say, 'Let's have a national approach to setting expectations for student learning and then let's get the federal government out of all of this micromanaging stuff and return that authority to the states and school districts who, after all, are the ones that have to buy into any reform strategy in order to make it work.'"


Michael J. Petrilli is now Vice President for National Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.


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