From US News and World Report, December 9, 2009
At the Department of Education headquarters in Washington, officials no
longer refer to the No Child Left Behind law by name. Last June, the
quaint red schoolhouse the Bush administration built in front of the
department building as a symbol of his signature domestic policy was
torn down. While the impact NCLB has had on the nation's classroom is
still the subject of fervent debate, there's no doubt that the Obama
administration intends to strike a new path for education reform.
When President George W. Bush signed NCLB in 2002, the policy met with
bipartisan praise and looked set to become the most influential federal
reform of the nation's schools since desegregation in the 1950s. Today,
efforts to reauthorize the law—something that was scheduled to happen
in 2007—continue to languish in Congress, unable to gather enough
momentum from either party in either chamber. Its sinking trajectory
demonstrates how difficult it can be for politicians in Washington to
improve the quality of education offered in classrooms across the
The attitude many educators, politicians, and the general public have
toward NCLB can be characterized in a single word: conflicted. The law
mandates that 100 percent of K-12 public school students meet state
proficiency standards in reading and math by 2014. Schools that miss
the mark could face sanctions that include staff restructuring or
takeovers by outside agencies. Most educators and activists agree the
law has helped expose wide gaps in academic achievement between white
students and their economically disadvantaged, minority peers and has
identified low-performing schools.
The core criticism of NCLB centers on whether meeting these
requirements has, paradoxically, forced schools to lower the caliber of
the education they provide. Critics assert that because NCLB provides
no federal standards for what students at each grade level should be
learning, states can "dumb down" the difficulty of their reading and
math tests to meet the law's requirements.
"The biggest problem with NCLB is that it doesn't encourage high
learning standards," says Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "The net
effect is that we are lying to children and parents by telling kids
they are succeeding when they are not."
The pressure Duncan and the Obama administration now face is how to
improve NCLB so students are challenged to learn, not just score well
on standardized tests. Many education experts are speculating that
Obama's Race to the Top initiative is essentially a dry run for the
next version of NCLB. The Education Department is committing up to $350
million of the $4.35 billion available in competitive Race to the Top
grants to support the creation of assessments, or tests, linked to
common standards. (The National Governors Association already has
started work on common standards.) Rep. George Miller, the California
Democrat who heads the House education committee, says he expects that
the results of Race to the Top will influence the shape of the
reauthorization legislation for NCLB.
Education Department officials have started holding meetings nationwide
with teachers, parents, and others to get their input on changes to the
NCLB legislation. While department officials might not entirely agree
with NCLB's practices, they can't walk away from the law yet, either.
"Duncan is sticking a toe into these turbid waters," says Chester Finn,
president of the nonprofit Thomas B. Fordham Institute. "He is . . .
declaring that we must use [NCLB's] current tools—including
standardized testing—until we develop better ones."
Getting everyone in the debate to settle on which tools are better
could break the NCLB logjam in Congress
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