Congress and "No Child Left Behind": Will History Be Part of the Reauthorization?

Bruce Craig, December 2006

Next year, Congress is expected to address the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the centerpiece of President Bush's education policy that is slated to expire in September 2007. For some months, the history and social studies communities have been discussing the legislation—its benefits and drawbacks—in an effort to determine whether it will be possible to speak with one voice when NCLB comes before Congress for reauthorization.

In order to facilitate communication between the various communities of interest, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and Junior Achievement Worldwide conducted a two-day summit in mid-September that brought together representatives from several national organizations related to the core social studies disciplines (history, civics, economics, and geography) to discuss NCLB. The purpose of the meeting was to exchange views and to identify areas of agreement regarding the reauthorization of the act. The meeting resulted in the formulation of a working group with a representative from each discipline pledging to make a beginning for developing a unified position on the NCLB reauthorization.

During the summit, panel presentations focused on the recent quantitative evidence that clearly establishes that history and other social studies subjects are being marginalized in elementary and middle schools as an "unintended consequence" of NCLB. Other speakers focused on the importance of civics education in addressing what was characterized as the "achievement gap" in civic engagement by minorities and economically deprived student (often immigrant) populations.

Ellin Nolan, president of Washington Partners Inc.—a law firm that specializes in assisting clients with policy interests in education—gave an informative "congressional lay of the landscape" presentation regarding the NCLB reauthorization from the perspective of a Washington policy insider. Nolan stated that her information was that both the House and Senate committees of jurisdiction were interested in making "technical corrections" to the NCLB, but she doubted the committees would significantly alter the act's intent or implementation procedures. That may or may not be good, depending on one's perception of what changes to the law are desirable or needed.

Nolan also stated that it was possible that Congress may opt not to amend the bill in 2007 but may rather merely extend it without significant amendment until 2009, so that the committees can address what are perceived as "more pressing" legislative issues. This is exactly what the House and Senate have done with the Higher Education Bill, which is now in its third extension (see related story in the News Briefs section). News that Congress may not address problems with NCLB caused some consternation among the conferees. Some Hill watchers believe that extending the bill is merely a not so artful dodge by members of Congress who see problems with NCLB but for whatever political reasons or reservations they may have (that is, Republican members who do not want to challenge the president on his key domestic program as well as Democrats who would prefer to reshape the program as they see fit to meet other educational objectives), would prefer not to directly address the program until after the presidential election of 2008.

There are pros and cons to delaying action on NCLB. On the one hand, if Congress decides not to directly address the problems and concerns of social studies and history teachers now, it would be unfortunate—it would be students who will be the ultimate losers. On the other hand, by waiting until after the presidential election—especially if the Democrats capture the White House—there may be an opportunity to revamp the NCLB program in a more meaningful, more substantive way. However, Hill insiders and specialists in the history of education knowledgeable about how education policy is formed and evolves over time suggest that there is little evidence to lead one to conclude that there would be a wholesale retreat from NCLB even if the Democrats recapture the White House and Congress. In all likelihood, the program would be somewhat reshaped, perhaps even renamed, but large-scale revamping would be unlikely.

At this juncture though, it is important for the history and broader social studies communities to formulate their positions and viewpoints so that when Congress begins to hold hearings, the communities can (to the degree possible) speak with one voice. If that unison can be achieved, the voice of the disciplines will resonate louder and stronger in the halls of Congress.

The question that needs to be pondered now by history organizations is should history, civics, and other areas of social studies be included as NCLB core target subjects—like math and English are today? To reach a consensus on that central issue, other questions should first be addressed: Would increased student achievement testing actually advance history education? Is the NCLB so flawed that it should not be supported in any form? And if that is the case, what should replace it? These are questions that Congress will eventually be asking and the sooner our professional disciplines formulate a position on these issues and concerns the better. Once the position has been clarified, the disciplinary representatives will be able to speak thoughtfully and knowledgeably to members of Congress and the programmatic implementers in the Department of Education.

The last session of the summit addressed that goal. After considerable discussion, it was decided that there was a need to establish a working group comprised of social studies advocates to try to develop a unified position, or, at a minimum, compile and share data and provide mutual support and leverage influence on Capitol Hill in the coming months. A five-member steering committee (one individual from each discipline) emerged from the discussions. Members agreed to start communicating via e-mail and telephone conference calls in an effort to continue the communication between disciplines.

The representative of the history community who will attend the next meeting is Noralee Frankel, assistant director of women, minorities, and teaching for the AHA.

The formulation of this interdisciplinary steering committee comprised of some of the major social studies organizations is the first step in what hopefully will prove to be a collaborative effort to see that students do not get lost in the policy debate that is sure to generate considerable controversy during the next Congress.

—Bruce Craig is director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at rbcraig@historycoalition.org.