No Child Left Behind law falls short of its promise since 2002 signing

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WASHINGTON -- The No Child Left Behind education law was cast as a symbol of possibility, offering the promise of improved schools for the nation's poor and minority children and better prepared students in a competitive world.

Yet after a decade on the books, President George W. Bush's most hyped domestic accomplishment has become a symbol to many of federal overreach and Congress' inability to fix something that's clearly flawed.

The law forced schools to confront the uncomfortable reality that many kids simply weren't learning, but it's primarily known for its emphasis on standardized tests and the labeling of thousands of schools as "failures."

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the day Mr. Bush signed it into law in Hamilton, Ohio. By his side were the leaders of the education committees in Congress, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. The bipartisanship that made the achievement possible in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks is long gone.

The same Senate committee approved a revamped education bill last year, but deep-rooted partisanship stalled the measure in the full Congress. In this election year, there appears little political will for compromise despite widespread agreement that changes are needed.

Critics say the law carries rigid and unrealistic expectations that put too much of an emphasis on tests for reading and math at the expense of a more well-rounded education.

Frustrated by the congressional inaction, President Barack Obama told states last fall they could seek a waiver around unpopular proficiency requirements in exchange for actions his administration favors. A vast majority of states have said they will go that route, seen as a temporary fix until lawmakers do act.

Like Mr. Obama, Republican presidential candidates have criticized the law. One, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, even saying he regrets voting for it.

The view was drastically different 10 years ago, when Mr. Bush took what was an uncommon stance for a conservative in seeking an aggressive federal role in forcing states and districts to tackle abysmal achievement gaps in schools.

He was able to get fellow Republicans such as Mr. Boehner, the current House speaker, and Democratic leaders on education such as Kennedy, who died in 2009, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., to join him. The mandate was that all students read and perform math on grade level by 2014.

"No longer is it acceptable to hide poor performance. No longer is it acceptable to keep results from parents," Mr. Bush said when he signed the legislation. "We're never going to give up on a school that's performing poorly; that when we find poor performance, a school will be given time and incentives and resources to correct their problems."

The law requires annual testing. Districts must keep and publish data showing how subgroups of students perform. Schools that don't meet requirements for two years or longer face increasingly tough consequences, from busing children to higher performing schools to offering tutoring and replacing staff.

In low-performing urban schools, where teachers and principals once might have thrown up their hands and not known what to do, there was a new attitude along the lines of "we might not know what to do, but we've got to do something," said Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow in education at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.

But many teachers and principals started to believe they were being judged on factors out of their control and in ways that were unfair.

Jennifer Ochoa, an eighth-grade literacy teacher in New York who works with low-performing students, said the law has hurt morale among educators as well as students, who feel they have to do well on a standardized test or are failures, no matter how much progress they make.

How successful the law has been academically remains under debate.

Scores on a national assessment show significant gains in math among the fourth- and eighth-graders, with Hispanic and African-American fourth-graders performing approximately two grade levels higher today than when the law was passed, said Mark Schneider, the former U.S. commissioner of education statistics who now serves as vice president at the American Institutes for Research.

As the years went by, however, the growth has largely plateaued, Mr. Schneider said.



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