The No Child Left Behind Act was a landmark law for children, reaffirming their right to an equal opportunity at a quality education. And despite some of the controversy and shortcomings associated with the law, it constituted a critical step forward in education reform. NCLB turned the lights on in our schools.
Before NCLB’s passage, only a handful of states had access to data that showed student achievement broken down by gender, ethnicity, income, or English proficiency. The rest of the country was largely in the dark on how children were faring. Even worse, without knowing how much students were struggling in the classroom, no one felt the urgency to fix the problem. No Child Left Behind changed that.
Because of this law, the evidence is irrefutable that all kids can learn and succeed whatever their ZIP code or family income. We also learned that transparency can empower parents and communities when combined with action. Prior to NCLB, it wasn’t that parents in low-income and low-performing schools didn’t know that their children were being underserved, but there wasn’t much evidence, and no one was required to do anything about it. NCLB didn’t just provide the information on student achievement; it also told parents that schools had to improve.
This law is not perfect. It needs updating. A fundamental rewrite of NCLB, the most recent version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, should reflect current best practices and protect kids in the process. With reauthorization, Congress has a tremendous opportunity to take our education system into the 21st century.
Policymakers of both parties agree that this reauthorization should allow states and districts to manage their schools in a way that current law doesn’t. While the federal government will never improve an individual school, nor should it try, we should require action where the will to act doesn’t otherwise exist. This means supporting the simple idea that low-performing schools should be identified and required to improve.
Before NCLB’s passage, only a handful of states had access to data that showed student achievement broken down by gender, ethnicity, income, or English proficiency."
There is a growing consensus on the direction education policy should head in rewriting NCLB:
• States must set high standards and goals that ensure students are college- and career-ready.
• States should have more flexibility to craft their own accountability systems while ensuring schools are accountable for all students.
• States and districts should be empowered with the flexibility to improve schools based on their student, school, and community needs.
• We must ensure school performance is transparent so that parents and communities can help drive success.
• We must consolidate programs so that districts can more easily access funds, and we should provide more flexibility in what can be funded at the local level.
• States and districts must support a professional environment for teachers and school leaders, let them get back to doing their jobs, and provide them with the information and resources to succeed.
Nearly 40 states recently demonstrated support for these policies by signing up to create their own accountability systems in exchange for meeting a high bar for students through flexibility offered by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Rather than racing to the bottom to avoid accountability, states are running toward a modern education system that strikes the no-longer-elusive balance between strong accountability, high standards for students, and flexibility for states and districts.
This is the most dynamic education environment I have seen in my 37 years in public office. Now is not the time to return to the days when the system could linger at the status quo and hide the performance of some students. The days of having to choose between flexibility and strong accountability are now arguments of the past. Congress should support the states pursuing accountability and the rest of the country with a comprehensive rewrite of NCLB.
A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2012 edition of Education Week as Equal Opportunity: A Landmark Law for Children and Education