Ten years ago this week, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act. The law has improved American education in some ways, but it also still has flaws that need to be fixed.
The No Child Left Behind law newly exposed achievement gaps and created a conversation about how to close them. The law has held schools accountable for the performance of all students no matter their race, income level, English proficiency or disability. Schools can no longer point to average scores while hiding an achievement gap that is morally unacceptable and economically unsustainable.
But the law also created an artificial goal of proficiency that encouraged states to set low standards to make it easier for students to meet the goal. Its emphasis on test scores has narrowed the curriculum, and the one-size-fits-all accountability system has mislabeled schools as failures even if their students are demonstrating real academic growth. The law is overly prescriptive and doesn’t allow districts to create improvement plans based on their unique needs.
The question today is how to build on the No Child law’s success and fix its problems. Fortunately, states are leading the way. In Washington, D.C., we need to do everything we can to support their work.
Over the past two years, 45 states and the District of Columbia have shown tremendous courage by raising their academic standards to measure whether students are truly prepared for success in college and careers. To measure students’ progress toward those standards, 44 states and the district are working together to create assessments based on the common set of standards developed by educators, governors and state education chiefs. What’s more, states and school districts have adopted bold and comprehensive reforms to support academic achievement for all students. These reforms are improving teacher and principal evaluation and support, as well as turning around low-performing schools.
Unfortunately, the law is unintentionally creating barriers for these reforms.
States that have chosen to raise standards soon will need to explain why student scores are dropping. Instead, they should be able to highlight students’ academic growth. School districts are stuck using the law’s definition of a highly qualified teacher based solely on paper credentials, without taking into account the teacher’s ability to improve student learning. And the law continues to encourage schools to narrow curriculum at the expense of important subjects such as history, civics, science, the arts and physical education.
President Obama is offering states flexibility from the No Child law in exchange for comprehensive plans to raise standards; to create fair, flexible and focused accountability systems; and to improve systems for teacher and principal evaluation and support. This flexibility will not give states a pass on accountability. It will demand real reform.
So far, 39 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have expressed interest in this flexibility. The Education Department is working with the first group of applicants.
Although Congress has begun the process of reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind law, we can’t wait for the extended legislative process to be completed. States and school districts need relief from the law right now.
Congress has yet to act, even though the No Child Left Behind law is four years overdue for renewal. Education reform requires elected officials from both sides of the aisle to come together. We can’t let partisan politics stand in the way.