A Decade of No Child Left Behind

A Decade of No Child Left Behind

Assessing the landmark education legislation on its tenth anniversary.


As the No Child Left Behind Act turns 10 on Sunday, the bill’s future remains uncertain, with Congress and the Obama administration divided over how to update the controversial law. Meanwhile, NCLB has been largely irrelevant to two of the major trends in national education policy-making over the past three years: the push to tie teacher evaluation and pay to student achievement data, and the move toward a Common Core curriculum in math and English. (The main lever pushing those changes is the Obama administration’s deployment of billions of federal grant dollars to states that agree to adhere to those priorities.) Nevertheless, NCLB has had a profound effect on what students experience in the classroom and on the way the American public talks about its schools. Here is my assessment of how NCLB has changed American education over the past decade, both for the better and for the worse.

A spotlight on the achievement gap. NCLB required states to collect and publicize data on student performance broken down by race, class, English-language learner status, and special education-status. As a result, it is no longer possible for the media or political elite to ignore the inequities in our education system. Unfortunately, there has been very little acknowledgement of the fact that gaps in academic outcomes have multiple causes—some of which are located within schools, but the vast majority of which can be attributed to the socioeconomic characteristics of students’ families and neighborhoods. Critiquing the law from a more conservative perspective, Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess point out that the laser-focus on gaps between rich and poor kids has detracted from attempts to provide gifted and talented students with more stimulating instruction.

An increase in standardized testing. NCLB required standardized testing in 4th through 8th grade English and math, which led to a narrowing of the curriculum as science, computing, the arts, and physical education were cut from the schedule in many high-poverty schools—those under the most pressure to demonstrate test score gains in basic skills. The Obama administration would like to address the issue of curriculum-narrowing by rewriting NCLB to also require test score growth in science, social studies, and other subjects. This would be better than doing nothing to change the law’s testing mandates, but would increase the number of hours and days schools spend on testing and test-prep. In practice, additional testing is usually unpopular with parents and teachers, potentially triggering a backlash to the entire notion of aggressive, federally-led school reform. Efforts to address the shortcomings of testing with more testing ignore the fact that—as in other historical periods when schools were asked to quickly raise test scores—there has been widespread evidence of an increase in cheating and tampering with test answer sheets since NCLB went into effect.

A sidelining of conversations about racial and socioeconomic integration of schools. There are reams of good research showing that “peer effects” matter for poor children’s academic achievement. Simply put, kids learn more when they attend classrooms that serve a mix of poor and middle-class students, in which teachers are less likely to be overwhelmed by the challenges of poverty. To acknowledge so much is not to deny that hundreds of schools nationwide effectively serve nearly-100-percent high-poverty student populations; indeed, we know such schools exist, but that they are astoundingly difficult to sustain and replicate over time. Public policy can help diversify classrooms by providing money for nearby poor and affluent schools and districts to work together, but NCLB did not do so. President Obama’s school turnaround programs have similary ignored the potential of integration, despite the positive track-records of voluntary, urban-suburban student swaps in the Hartford, Seattle and Milwaukee metropolitan regions. In those systems, suburban parents can choose to send their kids to high-performing urban magnet schools. The seats that open up in suburban schools are then made available to city kids.

A rhetoric of “failing” schools. Kevin Carey has fairly pointed out that NCLB is long on mandates, but short on actual punishments for schools that fail to meet their annual test-score targets. Even so, the media conversation around the law has generated a national consensus that our public education system is failing. The real story is more complex; even in relatively bleak public school districts like the one in Newark, NJ, there are pockets of true excellence.

A debate among urban parents. Although only 1 percent of eligible parents were able to take advantage of NCLB’s school choice provisions, the law’s promise to provide an “out” from failing schools has contributed to vastly increased political support for the expansion of the charter school sector. Thousands of inner-city parents are thrilled to remove their children from underperforming neighborhood schools and enroll them in charters, but for every family happy about school choice, there are several who lost charter school lotteries or never entered them in the first place—and who see the energy and funding in education reform steadily drifting away from traditional, neighborhood public schools. I interviewed some of these parents for my recent piece at The Awl on Occupy Wall Street and school reform. As I reported there, the move to shut down failing schools in New York, Washington, DC, and other cities has raised the ire of many urban parents, with focus groups and national surveys demonstrating that parents would prefer their children’s schools be flooded with additional resources and support, not closed.

Upper-middle-class alienation. Just beneath the surface of the national conversation, there is smoldering upper-middle-class resentment toward many of the priorities of No Child Left Behind and the entire federal school reform agenda. We see evidence of this anger in the viral popularity of the documentary Race to Nowhere: The Darkside of America’s Achievement Culture, and in the protest movement among (mostly) suburban New York State principals against value-added evaluation of teachers. Social movements need middle-class support to succeed, so the future of school reform depends, in part, on whether the majority of Americans believe that standards, testing, and accountability mandates will serve their own children as well as the children of the poor.

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