As Congress begins to consider reauthorization of the Bush Administration’s 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, The Nation asked Linda Darling-Hammond, a leading education expert, to examine the law, its consequences and prospects for improving the legislation. Those responding in this forum include sociologist and author Pedro Noguera, longtime educator and National Urban League vice president Velma L. Cobb and senior NYU scholar and veteran school principal Deborah Meier. –The Editors
When Congress passed George W. Bush’s signature education initiative, No Child Left Behind, it was widely hailed as a bipartisan breakthrough–a victory for American children, particularly those traditionally underserved by public schools. Now, five years later, the debate over the law’s reauthorization has a decidedly different tone. As the House and Senate consider whether the law should be preserved–and if so, how it should be changed–high-profile Republicans are expressing their disenchantment with NCLB, while many newly elected Democrats are seeking a major overhaul as well.
What happened? Most discussions focus on the details of the more than 1,000-page law, which has provoked widespread criticism for the myriad issues it has raised. All of its flaws deserve scrutiny in the reauthorization debate, but it’s also worth taking a step back to ask what the nation actually needs educationally. Lagging far behind our international peers in educational outcomes–and with one of the most unequal educational systems in the industrialized world–we need, I believe, something much more than and much different from what NCLB offers. We badly need a national policy that enables schools to meet the intellectual demands of the twenty-first century. More fundamentally, we need to pay off the educational debt to disadvantaged students that has accrued over centuries of unequal access to quality education.
NCLB’s Promise–and Problems
In 2002 civil rights advocates praised NCLB for its emphasis on improving education for students of color, those living in poverty, new English learners and students with disabilities. NCLB aims to raise achievement and close the achievement gap by setting annual test-score targets for subgroups of students, based on a goal of “100 percent proficiency” by 2014. These targets are tied to school sanctions that can lead to school reconstitutions or closures, as well as requirements for student transfers. In addition, NCLB requires schools to hire “highly qualified teachers” and states to develop plans to provide such teachers.
NCLB contains some major breakthroughs. First, by flagging differences in student performance by race and class, it shines a spotlight on longstanding inequalities and could trigger attention to the needs of students neglected in many schools. Second, by insisting that all students are entitled to qualified teachers, the law has stimulated recruitment efforts in states where low-income and “minority” students have experienced a revolving door of inexperienced, untrained teachers. While recent studies have found that teacher quality is a critical influence on student achievement, teachers are the most inequitably distributed school resource. This first-time-ever recognition of students’ right to qualified teachers is historically significant.