The No Child Left Behind education law was cast as a symbol of possibility, offering the promise of improved schools for the nation’s poor and minority children and better prepared students in a competitive world.
Yet after a decade on the books, President George W. Bush’s most hyped domestic accomplishment has become a symbol to many of federal overreach and Congress’ inability to fix something that’s clearly flawed.
The law forced schools to confront the uncomfortable reality that many kids simply weren’t learning, but it’s primarily known for its emphasis on standardized tests and the labeling of thousands of schools as “failures.”
Sunday marks the 10-year anniversary of the day Bush signed it into law in Hamilton, Ohio. By his side were the leaders of the education committees in Congress, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. The bipartisanship that made the achievement possible in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks is long gone.
The same Senate committee approved a revamped education bill last year, but deep-rooted partisanship stalled the measure in the full Congress. In this election year, there appears little political will for compromise despite widespread agreement that changes are needed.
Critics say the law carries rigid and unrealistic expectations that put too much of an emphasis on tests for reading and math at the expense of a more well-rounded education.
Frustrated by the congressional inaction, President Barack Obama told states last fall they could seek a waiver around unpopular proficiency requirements in exchange for actions his administration favors. A vast majority of states have said they will go that route, seen as a temporary fix until lawmakers do act.
Like Obama, Republican presidential candidates have criticized the law. One, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, even saying he regrets voting for it.
“If you called a rally to keep No Child Left Behind as it is, not a single person would show up,” said Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Denver’s former school superintendent.
The view was drastically different 10 years ago, when Bush took what was an uncommon stance for a conservative in seeking an aggressive federal role in forcing states and districts to tackle abysmal achievement gaps in schools.
He was able to get fellow Republicans such as Boehner, the current House speaker, and Democratic leaders on education such as Kennedy, who died in 2009, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., to join him. The mandate was that all students read and perform math on grade level by 2014.
“No longer is it acceptable to hide poor performance. No longer is it acceptable to keep results from parents,” Bush said when he signed the legislation. “We’re never going to give up on a school that’s performing poorly; that when we find poor performance, a school will be given time and incentives and resources to correct their problems.”
The law requires annual testing. Districts must keep and publish data showing how subgroups of students perform. Schools that don’t meet requirements for two years or longer face increasingly tough consequences, from busing children to higher performing schools to offering tutoring and replacing staff.
The test results were eye-opening, recalled Miller, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
“People were stunned because they were always led to believe that things were going fine in this particular school. And the fact of the matter was, for huge numbers of students that was not the case,” Miller said. “That led to a lot of anger, disappointment. That led to embarrassment. In many instances, the schools were being held out as exceeding in their mission, when it fact they were failing many, many of the children in those schools.”
Under the law, watching movies and assigning irrelevant or no homework was no longer acceptable because suddenly someone was paying attention, said Charles Barone, a former aide to Miller who is director of federal policy with Democrats for Education Reform.
In low-performing urban schools, where teachers and principals once might have thrown up their hands and not known what to do, there was a new attitude along the lines of “we might not know what to do, but we’ve got to do something,” said Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow in education at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.
Both spoke at a recent forum on the law at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
But many teachers and principals started to believe they were being judged on factors out of their control and in ways that were unfair.
Jennifer Ochoa, an eighth-grade literacy teacher in New York who works with low-performing students, said the law has hurt morale among educators as well as students, who feel they have to do well on a standardized test or are failures, no matter how much progress they make.
“Afterward, it didn’t matter how far you came if you didn’t make this outside goal,” Ochoa said. “We started talking about kids in very different ways. We started talking about kids in statistical ways instead of human being terms.”
How successful the law has been academically remains under debate.
Scores on a national assessment show significant gains in math among the fourth- and eighth-graders, with Hispanic and African-American fourth-graders performing approximately two grade levels higher today than when the law was passed, said Mark Schneider, the former U.S. commissioner of education statistics who now serves as vice president at the American Institutes for Research.
“You cannot dismiss these gains, and I think … people just aren’t willing to credit NCLB or accountability in general because of ideological and political preferences,” Schneider said.
As the years went by, however, the growth has largely plateaued, Schneider said. Similar large gains were not shown in reading, and some experts say more progress was made in reading before the law was passed. There are still huge differences in the performance of African-American and Hispanic students compared with white students.
As the 2014 deadline draws closer, more schools are failing to meet federal standards, with nearly half not doing so last year, according to the Center on Education Policy. Center officials said that’s because some states today have harder tests or have high numbers of immigrant and low-income children, but it’s also because the law requires states to raise the bar each year for how many children must pass the test.
Some states had long put off the largest increases to avoid penalties.
In Washington, much of the political debate over the law centers on how much federal control the government should have. Some Republicans want to go so far as to close the Education Department and end federally-imposed annual testing.
Even among Democrats there’s been some dissension. The Obama administration, for example, opposed the Senate bill passed in committee under the leadership of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, because it said the measure didn’t go far enough on accountability; Harkin said it wasn’t a perfect bill, but compromise was necessary.
Many educators are now looking to other factors such as online learning, an increased trend toward teacher evaluations tied to student performance, the federal Race to the Top competition that states have competed in, and the common core standards adopted in the vast majority of states as factors that could provide the next boost in education.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former education secretary, said he’s hopeful Congress will do what’s right and update No Child Left Behind, which became due for renewal in 2007.
“One of the things we ought to be able to do is fix No Child Left Behind,” said Alexander, R-Tenn. “What we ought to do is set new realistic goals for it so that schools can have those kinds of goals, and most importantly we need to move out of Washington and back to states and local communities decisions about whether schools and teachers are succeeding or failing.”
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