Faculty Post: Farewell to “No Child Left Behind,” Hello to….??

by Professor Mary O’Connell

In January of 2002, President George W. Bush signed a statute his administration optimistically dubbed “No Child Left Behind”(NCLB). In fact, the statute was a re-authorization of the more mundanely named “Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA)”, a key pillar of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program. Johnson, who was raised in very modest circumstances, famously declared a “War on Poverty” ; the ESEA, which flowed federal funds to public schools with high concentrations of poor children, was one of Johnson’s legislative centerpieces.

From the beginning, the ESEA was designed to be reauthorized by Congress periodically. Between 1965 and 2002, Congress added many refinements, including funding for the education of children with disabilities, for bilingual education, and for expansions of the statute’s signature Head Start program. But by any measure, NCLB was revolutionary. Instead of merely helping to fund the education of certain groups of children (poor children, children with disabilities and English Language Learners), NCLB mandated a testing regimen, and required that 100% of public school students in grades 3-8 test “proficient” in reading and math (with a science requirement as well in some grades) by 2014. It is not news that this didn’t happen.

NCLB was designed to have teeth, demanding, to use a favorite term of President Bush, “accountability”. As a condition of continuing to receive federal education funds, every state was required to adopt a standardized test, and to set a score on that test that demonstrated proficiency in the skill being tested. The state also had to show that each year, a greater percentage of students was achieving proficiency, moving toward the 100% in 2014 that the law required. And that was not all. Liberal supporters of the law, most famously Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, insisted that the statute “disaggregate” students’ scores. Each school was required to report not merely how students did overall, but how well poor students did, students with disabilities, African-American students, Latino students, Asian students, white students, boys, girls, students for whom English was not their first language. And if any group failed to make sufficient progress, that constituted failure under the statute.

With Congress mired in gridlock throughout President Obama’s first term, and the 2014 date for 100% proficiency looming, the U.S. Dept. of Education announced in 2011 that states could apply for a waiver of NCLB’s requirements. That is, the Secretary of Education could give a state permission to ignore NCLB. At the present time, 44 states are operating under waivers, or have petitions for waivers pending with the USDOE. Liberals and conservatives agree, this is not a great way to make law.

After years of delay, something is finally stirring in Congress. On July 8, 2015, the “Student Success Act” passed the House of Representatives in a close vote (218-213). On July 16, “Every Child Succeeds” passed the Senate with resounding (and, these days, most unusual) bipartisan support (81-17). Now a committee that includes members of both houses of Congress needs to be named to see if differences in the bills can be reconciled. Will this happen? Can the two houses reach agreement? And, if they do, will President Obama sign the law? A great deal is up in the air. Most controversial is a provision in the House bill that says that federal money essentially attaches to the child, not the school. So if a poor child leaves her public school for a private school, the public money allocated on account of that child will be taken from the public school and paid to the private school. Less controversial measures in the Senate version would keep the annual tests, but eliminate the notion of proficiency, and all of the sanctions NCLB imposed on schools that failed to make “adequate yearly progress”(AYP). The Senate bill would also eliminate evaluating teachers based on their students’ test scores.

Is this enough? Even assuming that something along the lines of the more moderate Senate bill is enacted, what has been accomplished? There is a strong argument that this new law merely returns American public education to where it was in 2002, when NCLB was signed. Of course, that was not a very good place – which may explain why both of the 2000 Presidential contenders campaigned vigorously for substantial changes in education policy.

Perhaps we should be relieved that this bitterly divided Congress may at least be capable of doing away with the worst provisions of NCLB. But what comes next? Will schools, freed of the burden of making AYP, move away from the narrow curricula and “drill and kill” approaches to education that NCLB’s critics decry? In 2002, Congress and the President believed that accountability would transform American education. In 2015, Congress and the President want to “free” the states and schools to be creative and transformative. It’s hard to think of anything with more promise for a brighter future than a better education for all American children. I wish I could convince myself that “Every Child Succeeds” will move us toward that goal.

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