Tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of No Child Left Behind. Despite the failing memories of everyone who voted for the bill and the organizations that supported it, it has raised awareness of achievement gaps and the achievement of all students even poor and minority students who were typically forgotten.
I thought this TIME Magazine piece by Andrew J. Rotherham did a good job of reminding us of both the positives and negatives of the law.
Bashing the No Child Left Behind Act has become so politically popular that it’s easy to forget how overwhelmingly bipartisan it was — the legislation passed the House with 384 votes and the Senate with 91. As the law marks its 10-year anniversary on Jan. 8, it’s important to look at both its successes and its failures. Did NCLB solve all of our public education problems? No. But it set a lot of good things in motion and was specifically designed to be revised after five or six years (in a reauthorization that has yet to happen and is unlikely to before this year’s election.) The No Child law didn’t get everything right the first time, but that’s the wrong yardstick. If we held other policy areas — think food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security — to the same standard No Child is held to these days, i.e., flawlessness, then we would have jettisoned those and many other worthy programs long ago.
No Child Left Behind was designed to bring accountability into public schools. It is not a new federal program. Rather, it is the latest modification to the mammoth Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the omnibus law that governs most federal involvement in public schools. The No Child revisions built on President Bill Clinton’s 1994 Improving America’s Schools Act, which built on the lessons learned during the Reagan years. As former governors, both Clinton and President George W. Bush shared a commitment to having specific standards for what skills children should be learning and holding schools accountable for teaching them. By the late 1990s, key organizations including the Education Trust and the Citizens Commission for Civil Rights were calling for stricter accountability measures, and Democrats on Capitol Hill — including California Representative George Miller, a key player on education policy in the House — were responding. When Bush became President and got recalcitrant Republicans to fall in line and support his accountability measures, it was a Nixon-to-China move on education policy.
Specifically, the law required states to test students in grades 3 through 8 — something fewer than 20 states were doing at the time — and to disaggregate the results by race, income, ethnicity and other characteristics to see how well all students were doing. States had to establish consequences for schools that failed to make progress, such as allowing students to transfer to other public schools, offering free tutoring after hours and changing schools’ instructional programs or their staffs.
The increased focus on accountability has produced some benefits. For starters, NCLB has changed educators from arguing about whether to hold schools accountable for performance to arguing about how to do it. That’s no small accomplishment in a field that is notoriously hostile to change and is particularly averse to the concept of consequential accountability. (It’s hard to overstate this; I’ve been in meetings where people have requested that words like “performance” not be used because they consider them offensive terms.) NCLB also produced an explosion of data that, while not consistently useful yet, is at least putting the education debate onto a more empirical footing. This change was long overdue as well. Elementary and secondary education is a $650 billion annual undertaking, but, until recently, even basic measures of — yes — performance were not routinely taken or analyzed.
Together, the focus on data and accountability is fueling a growing urgency about the need to improve our schools. The law highlighted the magnitude of the gaps in achievement and outcomes that divide students by race and income and makes it harder for people to argue, in essence, that “our schools are doing fine if you don’t count the poor and minority kids.” Oh, and by the way, there has been some improvement in achievement for low-income and minority kids, the law’s intended beneficiaries — which is no small thing in a country that systematically overlooks these students.
At the same time, the law has many shortcomings. It left most of the major decisions to states and localities, and “Go hold yourself accountable” doesn’t work any better in education than it does on Wall Street. The law also required states to set performance targets for schools but didn’t do nearly enough to support educators in the work of reaching them. This left many schools to take ineffective or even counterproductive steps in an effort to boost test scores rather than actually teach kids. Though No Child was accompanied by record infusions of federal dollars — federal education spending increased more under Bush than any prior president — these dollars were sent through the same pipes and used in much the same way they had been for the previous three decades. Innovative ideas, such as No Child’s landmark $1 billion reading program, which aimed to ensure that schools used research-based approaches to teach reading, got caught in the political crossfire a few years ago and died.
My hope is that the good parts of NCLB like annual assessments, disaggregated student data, accountability for schools who don’t meet the needs of all students, will survive the political sausage factory that is Washington DC. I’d agree with Rick Perry that we should eliminated the Department of …… oh yeah, Education, if only states could be counted upon to make sure all students have the opportunity to learn. In my experience, many states, California included, do a much better job of meeting the needs of adults than they do meeting the needs of children.