Jan. 8, 2012, will mark the 10-year anniversary of President George W. Bush’s signature on his top domestic priority, the No Child Left Behind Act. The standards-setting education law was unquestionably groundbreaking, even though a decade of experience has revealed deep flaws in its measurement systems. Undaunted, its defenders stand by its original premise—that public schools should take responsibility for the academic achievement of all their students.
The law was a product of political circumstances that would be impossible to replicate today. Unapologetic liberals teamed with conservatives in Congress and the White House to craft a monitoring system for schools that for the first time provided comparable data about students’ abilities in math and reading. The law required all students to take standardized tests once a year, and it mandated that schools show they were improving their performance from year to year.
The measure passed the House and Senate with sweeping bipartisan majorities, a feat that reflected a year of in-depth and difficult negotiations between the administration and Congress. At certain points, the legislation stayed alive only because the authors stubbornly refused to give up. The Democratic sponsors fended off teachers unions, and the Republicans deflected conservatives railing against bigger government. The sponsors forged compromises across the aisle and then cajoled their constituencies into backing their efforts.
It worked. In the House, the vote on the final conference report was 381-41. The Senate vote was 87-10.
“The fundamental principle of this bill is that every child can learn, we expect every child to learn, and you must show us whether or not every child is learning,” Bush told a cheering crowd at a high school in Hamilton, Ohio, on the day he signed the bill. “Every school has a job to do, and that’s to teach the basics and teach them well. If we want to make sure no child is left behind, every child must learn to read. And every child must learn to add and subtract.”
As a country, we have not come close to achieving that goal, but No Child Left Behind has greatly informed our understanding of how far we have to go. School districts and states are now accustomed to giving their students standardized tests and reporting the results. Just as importantly, achievement among minorities and disadvantaged kids is disaggregated, or examined separately, highlighting potential problem areas in schools and communities. Forty-five states, two territories, and the District of Columbia have adopted new state-determined Common Core standards for education.
The results from all of that testing are not very encouraging. In global comparisons, 15-year-olds in the United States rank 14th in reading and 25th in math. Scores have increased slowly and steadily over the past 20 years, but No Child Left Behind did not cause a noticeable uptick.
The law had problems from the beginning. Administrators spent much of their time trying to get their schools in compliance on paper rather than implementing the kind of radical changes the sponsors envisioned. The paperwork burdens were tremendous. The teacher-certification requirements were pretty much a waste of time. Loopholes in the funding provisions had the practical effect of ensuring that financially poor schools still got less money than those in well-off areas. Some states lowered their academic standards to “improve” their performance.
The failure at all levels of government to deliver promised resources to ailing schools made it impossible to give disadvantaged students all the benefits to which they were entitled. It’s a matter of debate where the blame lies for the lack of funding, but it’s fair to say that the education statute is not the sole cause.
Now, No Child Left Behind’s chapter in history is about to close. Lawmakers are proposing to dismantle the law, citing complaints about its one-size-fits-all approach and its effect of encouraging schools to “teach to the test.” Because thousands of schools could lose funding for falling short of the law’s achievement levels, the Education Department is offering to waive some requirements for states that meet certain criteria.
“Very few [school districts] stepped up and said, ‘Whoa, we’ve really got to do things differently here.’ ” —Rep. George Miller, an author of No Child Left Behind
Against this backdrop, National Journal asked 21 education experts—the law’s authors, other lawmakers, school officials, academics, and advocates with a variety of perspectives—to evaluate No Child Left Behind’s effectiveness based on its original goals.
This article appears in the December 10, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.