The No Child Left Behind law will soon be consigned to the dustbin of history. With a rare display of bipartisanship, Congress has overhauled federal education policy. The law’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, is headed for the president’s desk, and he has signaled his intention to sign it.
Good riddance to a misbegotten law. Will its replacement be any better?
No Child Left Behind, on the books since 2002, was supposed to close achievement gaps for disadvantaged students (racial and ethnic minorities, low-income students, youngsters with special needs and English learners) and to eliminate what President George W. Bush decried as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” The goal was audacious – by 2014, the law decreed, 100 percent of students would perform at grade level.
Instead, things have gotten worse by almost every measure. SAT scores have declined, as have the scores of American students, compared with their counterparts in other nations, on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exam. The rate of progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card, was actually higher, both over all and for specific demographic groups, during the decade before No Child Left Behind than after it was passed.
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Schools as pressure-cookers
At the same time, the law’s aspiration morphed into a high-stakes target for accountability – not for the politicians, with their unachievable demands, but for school officials who were given an impossible burden of meeting annual testing goals. Under the law, schools that didn’t make “adequate yearly progress” faced ever more draconian sanctions, including wholesale reorganization and closings.
As a result, public schools have turned into pressure cookers. Teachers are pushed to improve test results. A vanishingly small amount of time is spent on art, music and sports, because they aren’t part of the testing regime. Students have become test-taking robots, sitting through as many as 20 standardized exams a year.
The Obama administration initially acted as if the miracle of 2014, with every student proficient in math and reading, would come to pass. But in 2012, when it became clear that the achievement gap wasn’t about to vanish, the Department of Education started giving waivers to states that wanted to devise their own definition of adequate yearly progress. While almost every state has gotten an official permission slip, federal bureaucrats retained the final word on whether a state’s plan would pass muster, and those waivers were conditioned on commitments to adopt administration-approved education reforms. In effect the department has been relying on waivers to rewrite No Child Left Behind.
The Every Student Succeeds Act shifts, for the first time since the Reagan years, the balance of power in education away from Washington and back to the states. That’s a welcome about-face.
No longer can the Department of Education deploy the power of the purse, as it did with “Race to the Top” challenge grants, to prod states into adopting dubious policies like using students’ standardized test scores to judge teachers or expanding the number of charter schools. Now those decisions are left to the states.
The dread “annual yearly progress” requirement is gone, as are the escalating series of consequences inflicted on school districts that don’t measure up. States must intervene to help the weakest 5 percent of all schools, high schools that graduate fewer than 67 percent of their students on time (the national norm exceeds 80 percent) and schools where a subgroup of students “consistently underperforms.” But the states, not Washington, determine how to turn things around. That’s accountability with a needed dollop of flexibility.
A multipronged approach
While states are still required to test students annually in reading and math from third to eighth grade, and at least once in high school, they have a freer hand in designing those tests. What’s more, those standardized tests count for less in evaluating schools. At least one other measure of academic improvement, like graduation rates and, for nonnative speakers, proficiency in English, must be included. And a student performance measure, like grit or school climate, has to be part of the evaluation equation. This multipronged approach should make it easier for educators to replace some drill-and-kill memorization with more hands-on learning and critical thinking.
Civil rights groups have been tepid in their support because they fear that some states will revert to the neglect of minority students that drove Congress to pass No Child Left Behind. They have history on their side: “Leave it to the states” was disastrous for minority students. Will this time be different? The new law maintains the old requirement that test scores be made public and that those results be disaggregated. As a result, we’ll know where the most vulnerable students are. There will be still be fights over accountability, but those will be at the state level, and advocates will need to keep up the pressure for equity.
Hope springs eternal in school reform, only to be followed by disappointment. (Announcing his education bill, Lyndon B. Johnson declared his education plan the “passport from poverty.” Clearly, that didn’t work.) Rewriting the standards of evaluation and giving states freer rein in bailing out weak schools, as this law does, is a good day’s work inside the Beltway, but it’s no guarantee that the quality of teaching and learning will change. Making those improvements will take hard work on the part of committed educators and parents. Stay tuned.
The New York Times
David L. Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a senior fellow at the Learning Policy Institute.