Federal Commentary

Beyond No Child Left Behind

By Thomas Sobol — September 19, 2006 7 min read

It’s a new school year, and the No Child Left Behind Act partisans are oiling their muskets and forming their ranks. The pros are out to close the achievement gap, to shame people into accountability, to change the public system if necessary (or if possible). The cons attack the clumsy testing systems, the diminished curricula, the one-boot-fits-all approach to education reform. In both camps, arguments are sharpened, strategies devised, conscripts recruited. All are ready for the 2007 reauthorization of the federal law—or the 2008 reauthorization, if politics dictate. The battle will dominate education policymaking for at least the coming year, perhaps longer.

Which is as it should be, given the sweeping nature of the legislation and its effects. But some of us are concerned that this preoccupation with the No Child Left Behind law, understandable as it is, will cause us to do nothing or little about other important, far-reaching educational issues—issues at least as important as those arising from No Child Left Behind. It would be unwise not to give such matters the continuing attention they deserve.

A loosely organized cadre of currently serving and recently retired school superintendents, called Public Schools for Tomorrow, has been discussing these issues throughout the past year. We believe that superintendents with a lifelong commitment to educating all children can bring a unique perspective to the dialogue. Here are six of the issues we have identified.

Equity and Adequacy

Equal educational opportunity is the great promise of American life. Most of us grew up believing that if you worked hard enough and got good grades in school, you would get a good job and raise a prosperous family, no matter what your parents’ race, class, or creed. We have often failed to keep that promise. The test results associated with the No Child Left Behind law show that, despite scattered gains, school achievement continues to be closely tied to family background. Taken as a whole, what we are doing to break that connection is not enough.

The “adequacy” litigation undertaken in recent years in many of the states is one promising initiative. Litigants identify the resources and conditions students need to meet the learning standards in their states, and seek judicial authority to compel the provision of those resources and conditions. Whether by this route or some other, government—local, state, and federal—must see that all children have access to the means they need for educational success. You cannot achieve equity of outcome without adequacy of input. As the New York Times columnist and best-selling author Thomas L. Friedman writes, “[T]he biggest challenge and opportunity facing us today [is] the flattening of the global economic playing field in a way that is allowing more people from more places to compete and collaborate with your kids and mine than ever before.” Let’s make sure that all our children get what they need to compete in this new world.


From the time of its origins to the present day, our public school system has had as one of its chief tasks the integration of immigrant children into the mainstream of American economic and civic life. “E pluribus unum” did not happen by accident. By and large, our efforts have been effective. A quick scan of the day’s news is all that is needed to make us thankful that our country is not coming apart at its seams—as appears to be the case in the Middle East, in Africa, in the Balkans, in the former Soviet Union.

In an era of presumed education reform, we hear little about what the substance and method of our teaching and learning should be.

What is salutary in the long run may be controversial in the making. Today we are experiencing an influx of “foreign” children, largely from Asia and Central America. How we handle these children—soon to become a majority in large parts of our country—will determine what their lives will be, and what ours will be in turn. The stakes are high, so the questions abound. How can we best get these children to speak, read, and write English? Who goes to school, and with whom? How should schools communicate with non-English-speaking parents? What kinds of tests should immigrant children be required to pass? How can we close the achievement gap between these children and those in the majority population? How can we make “Americans” of these children in their own lifetimes, while respecting the cultural identity of their families?

We need to raise and debate these questions now, or leave the outcomes to blind chance and happenstance. One way or another, our nation will be changed.


As Jefferson tells us and most of us know, our form of government and ways of life depend upon an educated citizenry. Preparing young people for effective participation in a democratic society is a fundamental purpose of our public schools. In recent years, however, our preoccupation with the basic skills of math and reading has limited our attention to this larger purpose. Of course children should learn the basics of math and reading, but there are other basics as well. In a world in which democracy is under attack—both at home and abroad—students should build a solid foundation in the theory and practice of democracy. Sample questions: Why does so much of the world hate the United States? What should we teach our children to think and do about the matter? How can we develop our schools to be learning communities in which the adults and the children model democracy by participating in significant decisions about their schools?

Curriculum and Instruction

What should we teach, and how should we teach it? In an era of presumed education reform, we hear little about what the substance and method of our teaching and learning should be. We have mapped the stars and the human genome, set foot on the moon, and harnessed the power of nuclear energy—but our multiple-choice tests measure recall of factoids from the curriculum of the 1950s. We need vibrant discourse about what the new (perhaps competing) curricula should be. And we need also to debate the issue of who should decide: the federal government? the states? local school districts? teachers?

In recent years, the states, first on their own and then at the behest of the federal government, have established standards of curriculum content and student performance. Potentially, such standards can improve the quality of students’ education. But in most cases thus far, states have simply codified existing practice, fixing in place an increasingly obsolete curriculum. We have defined accountability as compliance, when what we need is the imagination to conceive bold new systems of inquiry. To paraphrase Robert Frost, we need to go to school to learn the future as well as the past.


Most people understand that if children are to learn better, they must be taught better. There is no more important variable in children’s schooling than the quality of their teachers.

While we’re paraphrasing, we might as well quote this apocryphal line from Julius Caesar: “I came, I saw, iPod.” The coming of the iPod and its siblings and clones symbolizes our ability to place in each child’s hands the key to all existing knowledge— and to openings of worlds to come. Thus far, the schools have merely scratched the surface of new communications capacity. We have used the technology as a prop for existing curricula and operations, when its power lies in creating new curricula and fundamentally different ways of organizing for teaching and learning. In our charter schools and small, theme-based high schools, we have created opportunities for bold new technology-centered ventures. Where are they? Why is it so hard to transcend what the education historians Larry Cuban and David Tyack call “the grammar of schooling”? Are our own standards and testing programs getting in our way?


Most people understand that if children are to learn better, they must be taught better. There is no more important variable in children’s schooling than the quality of their teachers. The No Child Left Behind law and similar approaches attempt to shame teachers into doing better. They assume that teachers know what to do to be more effective, but for some perverse reason decline to do so. But often teachers do not know what to do to be more effective. They need opportunities to learn from one another and from expert practitioners, and they need time to integrate new knowledge and methods into their own teaching practice. As Susan Fuhrman, the new president of Teachers College, Columbia University, notes: “If we want improvement for all students, at scale, we’d better think less about new, different reform approaches and more about investing in the necessary capacity to bring about coherent, sustained, instructionally focused strategies.”

In short, we need to find ways to attract able and effective people into the profession of teaching, to educate teachers well in both the content and methods of their work, and to support practicing teachers with professional development linked to their daily work with standards and students. The piecemeal, underfunded initiatives that exist at present are inadequate to the need. We need a national, systemic, adequately funded program to develop the capacities of our teaching corps.

These are issues that will affect our children’s education long after the No Child Left Behind Act has had its day. They should not be neglected now.

A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2006 edition of Education Week as Beyond No Child Left Behind

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