In Defense of No Child Left Behind

The law is far from perfect, but it's still much better than when Washington would pour money into schools regardless of results

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Jay L. Clendenin / Getty Images

President George W. Bush and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings leave the US Department of Education in October 2006, after speaking about his No Child Left Behind policy.

Bashing the No Child Left Behind Act has become so politically popular that it’s easy to forget how overwhelmingly bipartisan it was — the legislation passed the House with 384 votes and the Senate with 91. As the law marks its 10-year anniversary on Jan. 8, it’s important to look at both its successes and its failures. Did NCLB solve all of our public education problems? No. But it set a lot of good things in motion and was specifically designed to be revised after five or six years (in a reauthorization that has yet to happen and is unlikely to before this year’s election.) The No Child law didn’t get everything right the first time, but that’s the wrong yardstick. If we held other policy areas — think food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security — to the same standard No Child is held to these days, i.e., flawlessness, then we would have jettisoned those and many other worthy programs long ago.

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No Child Left Behind was designed to bring accountability into public schools. It is not a new federal program. Rather, it is the latest modification to the mammoth Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the omnibus law that governs most federal involvement in public schools. The No Child revisions built on President Bill Clinton’s 1994 Improving America’s Schools Act, which built on the lessons learned during the Reagan years. As former governors, both Clinton and President George W. Bush shared a commitment to having specific standards for what skills children should be learning and holding schools accountable for teaching them. By the late 1990s, key organizations including the Education Trust and the Citizens Commission for Civil Rights were calling for stricter accountability measures, and Democrats on Capitol Hill — including California Representative George Miller, a key player on education policy in the House — were responding. When Bush became President and got recalcitrant Republicans to fall in line and support his accountability measures, it was a Nixon-to-China move on education policy.

Specifically, the law required states to test students in grades 3 through 8 — something fewer than 20 states were doing at the time — and to disaggregate the results by race, income, ethnicity and other characteristics to see how well all students were doing. States had to establish consequences for schools that failed to make progress, such as allowing students to transfer to other public schools, offering free tutoring after hours and changing schools’ instructional programs or their staffs.

The increased focus on accountability has produced some benefits. For starters, NCLB has changed educators from arguing about whether to hold schools accountable for performance to arguing about how to do it. That’s no small accomplishment in a field that is notoriously hostile to change and is particularly averse to the concept of consequential accountability. (It’s hard to overstate this; I’ve been in meetings where people have requested that words like “performance” not be used because they consider them offensive terms.) NCLB also produced an explosion of data that, while not consistently useful yet, is at least putting the education debate onto a more empirical footing. This change was long overdue as well. Elementary and secondary education is a $650 billion annual undertaking, but, until recently, even basic measures of — yes — performance were not routinely taken or analyzed.

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Together, the focus on data and accountability is fueling a growing urgency about the need to improve our schools. The law highlighted the magnitude of the gaps in achievement and outcomes that divide students by race and income and makes it harder for people to argue, in essence, that “our schools are doing fine if you don’t count the poor and minority kids.” Oh, and by the way, there has been some improvement in achievement for low-income and minority kids, the law’s intended beneficiaries — which is no small thing in a country that systematically overlooks these students.

At the same time, the law has many shortcomings. It left most of the major decisions to states and localities, and “Go hold yourself accountable” doesn’t work any better in education than it does on Wall Street. The law also required states to set performance targets for schools but didn’t do nearly enough to support educators in the work of reaching them. This left many schools to take ineffective or even counterproductive steps in an effort to boost test scores rather than actually teach kids. Though No Child was accompanied by record infusions of federal dollars — federal education spending increased more under Bush than any prior president — these dollars were sent through the same pipes and used in much the same way they had been for the previous three decades. Innovative ideas, such as No Child’s landmark $1 billion reading program, which aimed to ensure that schools used research-based approaches to teach reading, got caught in the political crossfire a few years ago and died.

The last decade also laid bare the lack of will at the federal level for genuinely enforcing education policies, which led to states evading the law in ways large and small. Knowing that consequences from Washington were unlikely, states put so many loopholes into their accountability systems that it rendered many of them meaningless, and they allowed school districts to take the easy way out when faced with the hard work of turning around low-performing schools. Instead of undertaking actual reforms, states often allowed persistently failing schools to get by with only cosmetic changes.

Meanwhile, No Child’s requirements made clear just how ill-prepared almost every state education department is to lead a system of a high-performing schools. Compliance and bookkeeping rather than innovation and a focus on outcomes for students became the norm. Strategies to improve teacher credentialing turned into meaningless bureaucratic paper chases, and public school choice was an illusory option because parents had to contend with local officials throwing up roadblocks to their transfer rights under the law.

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But for all of NCLB’s problems, we should remember on its diamond anniversary that the current system is still better than the old days when Washington would just pour money into schools regardless of results. Education policy at the federal level is evolving in fits and starts toward a more results-focused role. Without Clinton’s 1994 law, there would not be a No Child Left Behind. And without No Child, there wouldn’t be a Race to the Top under the Obama Administration or a push among states to adopt common standards. Put more plainly, it’s what progress often looks like in our political system. It’s not pretty and it’s not as exciting as a lot the absolutist rhetoric around NCLB, and what comes next might be better but not by much.