“We’ve never had this attention to student achievement during the whole history of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” said Sandy Kress, the senior education adviser in the Bush administration who helped write the law and is now a lawyer at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.
(Mixed results) RESEARCH AND DATA
Data Use Is Up; Results Are Unclear
The law’s authors wanted schools and states to base their curricula and teaching policies on scientifically proven methods. After all, the ultimate aim of school assessments is to replicate the techniques that work and junk the ones that don’t.
Schools’ use of data is varied, but all of them know more now than they did 10 years ago about how to administer standardized tests and analyze that data in their schools. The Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences, created after No Child Left Behind, supports and disseminates research on education practices and publicizes statistics on the condition of education in the United States. The institute has significantly boosted the availability of data on student outcomes.
So we know more about what’s happening in schools, but we don’t necessarily know how to fix the lingering problems. Or, if we do know how, we aren’t willing. “This is not something that can be mandated by law,” said Barone, of the Democrats for Education Reform. “Regrettably, what we have now are too many state and local policymakers who are either disinclined or unable … to let research and data drive the continuous improvements that are needed to transform our education systems.”
(Failure) SCHOOL CHOICE
Options Are Limited or Nonexistent
For the conservatives who helped write No Child Left Behind, the prospect of enhanced school choice was an essential element. Bona fide choices for families would ensure that the government-run school system would be forced to answer to community and neighborhood concerns, they believed. Families would keep the government in check. “There must be a moment in which parents can say, ‘I’ve had enough of this school,’ ” Bush said when he signed the bill.
That moment has yet to come. The logistical difficulties of offering students at failing schools a chance to move to a better place have ensured that the “choice” mandated by law exists on paper only.
The number of charter schools has ticked up, and some systems try to provide parents more flexibility. But demand invariably exceeds availability, and school districts that engage in other turnaround activities can get waivers from the flexible-enrollment mandates to sidestep school-choice requirements. “Choice and supplemental services should never have been left in the hands of districts,” said Kress, the White House education specialist under Bush.
“WE’VE COME LIGHT-YEARS”
To appreciate the philosophical shift that No Child Left Behind achieved, it is useful to step back and look at where the education debate was before. In the 1980s and ’90s, policymakers were fully aware that American students were falling behind in the global marketplace. But the policy negotiations were stubbornly mired in how states should distribute school resources. Then, as now, states sought waivers from requirements about where their federal dollars should go. Testing was all over the place. Curriculum was haphazard.
After No Child Left Behind mandated that school systems test 95 percent of public-school students and publicize the results, the harsh, new light revealed the breadth and depth of the nation’s education problems.
“No Child Left Behind established unrealistic targets [and] failed to provide schools with resources to meet those targets.” —Dennis Van Roekel, president, National Education Association
“People were stunned at the test scores,” Miller said. “We took a snapshot of schools all across the country and said, ‘This is what it looks like. Six percent of these kids are reading at grade level; 50 percent of kids are being taught by a qualified teacher under this stupid little definition we have.’ They went, ‘What the hell is going on in this school?’ That’s now a discussion over ongoing professional development of teachers and ongoing evaluation of teachers and administrators. We’ve come light-years, and that’s a given. It’s resisted. But it’s a given.”
Ten years ago, policymakers wanted to put schools on the hook for results, any results. “You do what you do based on what you know at the time,” Spellings said. “And when you know more, you change it.”
We definitely know more. The education conversation currently revolves around defining K-12 academic benchmarks, agreeing on how to measure them, and deciding who the judges should be. That discussion may be the best testament to the impact of No Child Left Behind.
“My law has accomplished all that it can accomplish. I’m very proud of it. It’s done,” Miller said. “Hello, America—it’s time for the next iteration. But don’t lose your focus.”