The reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, now overdue and overpoliticized, took another baby step in June when the Senate education committee passed a bill without any Republican support. In July, the House of Representatives managed to pass a version of a bill that received exactly no Democratic support. And for 16 days in October, we witnessed partisanship at its worst with a government shutdown that doesn’t portend good things for the children of America.
What makes these episodes so discouraging, beyond legislators’ feigning seriousness about what should be a national priority, is that NCLB—the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—is the most progressive development in K-12 education since Brown v. Board of Education. Within its reauthorization rests the fate of 50 million students.
Now, as we near the end of the fifth year of the Obama presidency, one which promised less partisan gridlock, it’s also worth remembering the political landscape in 2001, the last time the ESEA was reauthorized. We had a Republican president (George W. Bush); the bill was co-authored by a Democratic senator from Massachusetts (the late Edward M. Kennedy); and it garnered 381 votes in a Republican-majority House and 87 votes in the Senate, which was nearly evenly split between the two parties. Bipartisanship. Those were the days.
The No Child Left Behind Act is indeed the most progressive development in public education since <i>Brown</i> v. <i>Board of Education</i>."
There is a disquieting truth about policy, which is that is does not achieve what it intends; it achieves what it allows. And the simple truth is that education policy prior to No Child Left Behind allowed schools to be evaluated in the aggregate. In this shameful holdover from the separate-but-equal doctrine, the performance of subgroups—including minorities, students with disabilities, students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and girls—was largely ignored. NCLB requires a disaggregation of assessment data and measures improvement not just of the school as a whole, but also of subgroups, heretofore invisible in many schools across the country.
Fast forward to Rancocas Valley Regional High School today—a one-time NCLB school “in need of whole-school restructuring,” the federal label for “failing,” in Burlington County, N.J. In 2013, its 2,200-student enrollment reflects the growing diversity and poverty level in America: Approximately 48 percent of the students are nonwhite, 23 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch, and 19 percent receive special services. In 2005, we received that federal label because of our inability to demonstrate adequate yearly progress for the subgroups on the state’s High School Proficiency Assessment.
For many schools, this label of failure assumed a permanence, not unlike what happens when schools identify a student’s academic track record as “gifted and talented” or “career prep.” Students rarely shed these labels, particularly the negative ones. For Rancocas Valley, it was an annual struggle to diagnose, target, and remediate the performance of underperforming subgroups. Depending on the year, the underperformers could be our African-American students, our economically disadvantaged students, and/or our students with individualized education programs, or IEPs.
To turn this situation around, the school’s leadership team adopted an empirical, data-driven approach to its work, and the faculty redoubled its efforts to reach every child. The faculty created an individualized educational experience for every child, believing in each student’s ability to be successful—as our school, our state, and the federal government define it. And so we evolved. We became a standards-based school, not rhetorically, but holistically. From daily lessons to course maps to common end-of-course assessments, the gap between what was taught and what was measured diminished greatly.
The administration partnered with the faculty to raise standards by eliminating course offerings that lacked rigor, a process known as “detracking.” On-level courses were set at a college-prep level. The career-and-college-prep level, where our faculty and counselors had guided students with academic difficulties, was eliminated. Those same students can now share demanding curriculum alongside stronger students with better parent advocacy.
Our language arts and social studies supervisor, Jean Marie Seal, worked tirelessly to detrack our students. She worked with faculty leadership to phase out all courses below the college-prep level, across all subject areas, in order to ensure a “rigorous and rich curricular experience.” As a result, enrollment in upper-level honors and Advanced Placement courses increased. We now have more students than ever taking AP U.S. history and the most number of passing scores we’ve ever had.
With nearly 400 students receiving special services each year, we challenged ourselves to enhance the education experience and outcomes for students with learning difficulties. We committed ourselves to equalizing the learning experiences for our regular and special education students. No Child Left Behind’s requirement for highly qualified teachers motivated us to send our special education teachers back to school. They learned subject-area curricula equal to the knowledge of any content-area expert. Our classrooms are co-taught by educators with subject-area and pedagogical expertise.
By shifting budgetary priorities and finding community and school board support, we were able to upgrade our technology and provide Kindles, iPads, Apple computers, PCs, HP tablets, and an interactive Smartboard in every classroom. And even more importantly, we now have tech-savvy teachers who use these devices and train their peers to do the same.
The result? In 2013, more than 96 percent of our students achieved proficiency in language arts literacy on state assessments. Our students with disabilities achieved 73 percent proficiency. By comparison, in 2008, these numbers were 80 percent and 36 percent, respectively. We narrowed the achievement gap dramatically in the same subject. Our African-American students achieved 96.6 percent proficiency, compared with 68 percent in 2008. Our white students achieved 97.4 percent proficiency compared with 93 percent in 2008. The jump in math was also significant. We reached 93 percent proficiency overall, compared with 72 percent in 2008. Our economically disadvantaged students achieved 78 percent proficiency, compared with 42 percent in 2008.
Meanwhile, we’ve maintained a rich program of activities, including one of the top ROTC programs in the Northeast, a state-championship band, a national-championship dance team, two recent state basketball championships, engaging service projects, a low incidence of bullying, the fastest female miler in the state, a dynamic faculty, and 2,200 of the nicest and most authentic teenagers you would ever want to work with. Many of our graduates go on to attend the United States service academies and Ivy League colleges and, most impressively, many pursue careers in education.
Let the politically charged post-mortems begin on the impact of NCLB on America’s schools and children. But we should be as empirical in our analysis as we are in our leadership. Would schools like ours have had laser-focused programs of identification, support, and remediation were it not for this federal law? Would districts like ours have asked the tough questions, such as whether we overclassified black male students and ignored whether enough female students were taking calculus? Would school boards and leadership teams have collaborated on priorities that disproportionately support students with the most need, while measuring and holding themselves accountable for the achievement of all?
The No Child Left Behind Act is indeed the most progressive development in public education since Brown v. Board of Education, and, its flaws notwithstanding, we’re never going back. Intentional practice, courageous conversations, and broad student advocacy—these are legacies of NCLB. When the history of education reform is written, these are the values that will occupy the moral and pedagogical high ground.
A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2013 edition of Education Week as In Defense of NCLB