On January 8, 2002, President George Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law with bipartisan support. While it was initially hailed as heralding (to quote Bush) “a new era, a new time in public education in our country” that would provide “a new path of reform, and a new path of results” especially for disadvantaged students, ten years later, such results remain elusive.
NCLB is the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which was passed during the Johnson administration. It was an attempt to broaden the federal role in mandating regular standardized testing for all students with a goal of establishing standards for school accountability. Schools that did not make “Adequate Yearly Progress” would be subject to federal sanctions, federal funds would have to be set aside for tutoring and students could transfer to non-failing schools. Under NCLB, 100 percent of public school students — a tall order — would be proficient in math and reading by 2014. But as a new research report details, 31,737 out of 98,916 schools missed the law’s testing goals in 2009, too many for the government to improve.
What Did, and Didn’t, NCLB Achieve?
As Joy Resmovits writes, NCLB did “shine a light on underperforming minority groups.” The law also highlighted school accountability and standards for students. Resmovits cites Charles Barone, the Democrats for Education Reform’s director of federal policy, who emphasizes that NCLB’s attempt to impose federal standards on American students’ performance meant that “some measure of reality” was brought to school districts and states who were letting students graduate with A’s and B’s but still seeing them struggle in college and in the workplace.
However, even with the threat of sanctions, scores on standardized tests have not improved and US students continue to score behind their peers in other countries. Teachers have said that by making standardized tests so central, NCLB has forced teachers to teach to the test.
Some proponents of NCLB contend that the law has not been as successful as hoped because it was never fully funded by President Bush. In additional, “proficiency” in students was left to individual states to determine, with the result that schools in one state could receive a failing grade based on criteria that, in another state, would be considered sufficient.
NCLB has been due for renewal since 2007. In October of 2011, Senator Tom Harkin (D.-Iowa), the chair of the Senate Education Committee, released an 865-page revision to NCLB, removing the provision that standardized test scores in reading and math would be used to determine a school as failing or not. While Harkin’s revisions won support from teachers’ unions, other education advocates and civil rights groups did not back it; Harkin’s committee approved it, but the bill has stalled in the House. In addition, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said that the bill makes too many compromises, especially in regard to teacher evaluations and student-achievement goals.
With the impasse in Congress and the desire to change a law widely seen to be flawed and a failure, President Obama used his executive authority to enact reforms that allow states to apply for waivers (including the 2014 deadline for proficiency), if they carry out certain reforms (including more rigorous teacher evaluation systems).
What’s Next For NCLB?
Senator Lamar Alexander (R.-Tennessee) has said that NCLB “has been a noble experiment” but that control of education should reside in local governments. Despite President Obama’s waiver plan, test preparation will continue to be a focus. In other words, as Care2 blogger Judy Molland wrote, the basic provisions of NCLB will remain and schools with low-scoring students could still receive failing grades. Focusing on students taking standardized tests in math and reading has meant that “history, the arts, foreign languages, P.E and even recess” have all been shortchanged.
The one thing that we can (perhaps) all agree about is that no one has been entirely happy about NCLB, and many have been, and will continue to be, deeply frustrated with it. Were national, federally-mandated requirements for education a mistake from the start, or might they be effective if carried out differently — perhaps without such an emphasis on standardized test scores?
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