Good riddance to the law. Will its replacement be any better?
The Old Law
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.
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.
Stress of NCLB
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 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 sign.
States Still Need Accountability
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.
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.
Good Intentions but Bad Plan
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.