Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Every Student Succeeds Act Opinion

20 Years Ago, NCLB Kinda, Sorta Worked. That’s the Problem

The legacy of a policy, good or bad, can long outlive the political moment that shapes it
By Rick Hess — October 03, 2022 3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In fall 2002, schools entered the No Child Left Behind era. The previous January, President George W. Bush had signed the Act into law. While it’s tough to remember amid all our polarization and after NCLB’s travails, Congress adopted the law with massive, bipartisan majorities. But that political success gave rise to a more complicated reality.

The final bill ran hundreds of pages and included new provisions on testing, reporting, school improvement, teacher quality, and more. The heart of the bill, though, was the requirement that states test all students regularly in reading, math, and science; annually report student proficiency by school and district; and adopt federally mandated interventions where proficiency (for any demographic group) fell short of state-designated performance targets.

Oh, and states had to adopt an education plan that would ensure 100 percent of students were “proficient” by 2014. (Though states first had to define what “proficiency” meant.) As Checker Finn and I observed many years ago when explaining NCLB’s stumbles, “While nobody doubts that the number of ‘proficient’ students in America can and should increase dramatically from today’s woeful level, no educator believes that universal proficiency in 2014 is attainable. Only politicians promise such things.”

Ultimately, NCLB attempted to do three things at once, and these three proved to be an awkward fit. One was to provide an overdue X-ray showing how schools and groups of students were doing in reading and math. A second was to provide a rudimentary accountability system that could help spur change in schools or systems where inertia ruled. A third was to set a “moonshot” target for school improvement.

Individually, each of these approaches had merit. The way the law linked them together, though, was unfortunate. An X-ray can provide invaluable transparency. But when the X-ray results were used to decide whether schools were failing, they were corrupted—and turned into a metric to be gamed. Performance-based accountability can be a very healthy thing, but tying it to an arbitrary (and unserious) moonshot target promoted cynicism rather than commitment.

What happened? Well, NCLB kinda, sorta worked as it was designed—and that was the problem. States and schools did the things they were supposed to. They adopted standards and set proficiency targets. They focused more intently on math and reading. Test scores increased in the first half-decade after the law was passed, and schools paid more attention to kids who had previously been overlooked and left behind.

Proponents had hoped that NCLB would raise both the “ceiling” as well as the “floor”—that schools would embrace excellence even as they did more to promote basic mastery of reading and math. That proved to be a hollow hope: The accountability incentives led state policymakers to adopt lax standards and school leaders to seek ways to game the test results. While short-run test scores went up, so did time spent on testing and test prep.

Meanwhile, the time devoted to non-tested subjects like social studies, civics, the arts, recess, and gifted education went down. Indeed, even as scores were going up, it wasn’t clear whether students were really learning more—or just learning more of the stuff on the reading and math tests and less of everything else.

Back when NCLB was crafted, there was broad agreement on the need for more transparency into how schools were doing and that schools should be more accountable for every student. That consensus splintered over time, as a fixation on test prep, benchmark testing, and test-based teacher evaluation (along with cheating scandals and game-playing about “proficiency”) fueled the impression that the tail was wagging the dog. And then, within a decade, most of the nation’s schools were judged to be failing under the law. The problem was that parents at many of these schools didn’t believe it. They decided the problem was with NCLB, not their schools.

Today, after years of populist backlash against testing and “big data,” support for testing and transparency is still far more fragile than it once was. That’s a problem, especially as we seek to understand and address the disruptions of pandemic. And it’s a reminder that the legacy of a policy, good or bad, can long outlive the political moment that shapes it.

There’s a broader lesson here. Policy is a powerful thing. When federal officials press schools and educators to do something, there’s a good chance they’ll do it—but perhaps not as intended. Laws may “work,” the trick is to ensure success is more than a kinda, sorta proposition.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
The School to Workforce Gap: How Are Schools Setting Students Up For Life & Lifestyle Success?
Hear from education and business leaders on how schools are preparing students for their leap into the workforce.
Content provided by Find Your Grind
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
The Key to Better Learning: Indoor Air Quality
Learn about the importance of improved indoor air quality in schools, and how to pick the right solutions for educators, students, and staff.
Content provided by Delos

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Every Student Succeeds Act Republicans Tell Miguel Cardona His Plan for ESSA Waivers Seems to Violate the Law
The Every Student Succeeds Act doesn't permit the education secretary to seek certain data he's asking for, the two GOP lawmakers say.
4 min read
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, left, listens as Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, center, speaks during a press briefing at the White House on March 17, 2021.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, left, listens as Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, center, speaks during a press briefing at the White House on March 17, 2021.
Andrew Harnik/AP
Every Student Succeeds Act How Will ESSA Hold Up During COVID-19? Pandemic Tests the Law's Resilience
Lawmakers designed ESSA to limit mandates covering issues like how tests are used. Will that affect how well the law survives the pandemic?
6 min read
Every Student Succeeds Act Betsy DeVos Tells States Not to Expect Waivers From Annual Tests
The tests required by federal law are crucial to helping schools respond to the coronavirus pandemic and help vulnerable students, the education secretary said in a letter to chief state school officers.
3 min read
Every Student Succeeds Act Top DeVos Deputy: Our 'Instinct' Is to Not Give States Testing Waivers Next Year
"Accountability aside, we need to know where students are so we can address their needs," Assistant Secretary of Education Jim Blew said during remarks at the Education Writers Association's National Seminar.
2 min read