Comments on Liebman and Sabel: A Public Laboratory Dewey Barely Imagined


In their article, James Liebman and Charles Sabel put forward an interesting and provocative thesis: that the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is a continuation of the educational goals of the civil rights movement. NCLB, they argue, is “the legitimate legatee of the concern for equal treatment in a diverse society that motivated the earlier and heroic attempts to recast the school system… .” Liebman and Sabel see great promise in the act’s combination of both top-down standards-based reforms with bottom-up, highly autonomous and localized reforms. To demonstrate their thesis, they describe historical and logical connections between NCLB and a variety of school reform programs.

As a historian and also as someone who has closely observed educational policy over the past two decades, I was fascinated by their analysis. I am persuaded by their argument that NCLB gained its bipartisan momentum because policymakers believed that it would ensure equity for those who are least well served by existing arrangements. For several years, the racial gap in academic achievement has been well documented, and policymakers have eagerly sought strategies to reduce or close the gap. NCLB, as the authors note, owes a great deal to earlier reforms in Texas, where annual testing and reporting were used to stimulate academic improvements. The Texas experience suggests that accountability reforms might be a valuable means to identify the specific children who are falling behind and to help them before it is too late. The Texas reforms embodied certain principles, such as the importance of clear academic standards; regular assessment of student performance, based on the standards; public release of ample information disaggregated by race, gender, and other categories; and academic interventions to aid lagging students. Such reforms are at the heart of NCLB, along with a requirement that districts achieve “adequate yearly progress” for students in meeting academic goals. Liebman and Sabel are optimistic that NCLB will bring concrete results and academic improvement, specifically for the poor and minority students who are now so frequently “left behind.”

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