Federal Commentary

NCLB Lessons

By Lamar Alexander — January 05, 2012 4 min read
Lamar Alexander

A decade ago, Republicans and Democrats in Congress and a Republican president enacted a plan to improve our nation’s schools. Their noble goal gave us No Child Left Behind.

Unfortunately, this plan inserted too many Washington rules and regulations into matters that should have been left to communities, parents, and classroom teachers. The goal was laudable enough: All 50 million students in nearly 100,000 public schools would be proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Such ambition is characteristic of Americans, who assert that all men are created equal and that anything is possible, but it proved unrealistic. Recent estimates show that at least half of the nation’s schools will be labeled as “failing” the Washington-defined “adequate yearly progress” standards this year. In addition, the well-intentioned requirement that 3.2 million teachers meet a Washington definition of “highly qualified” has proved, once again, the inadequacy of a one-size-fits-all approach in a society as large and complex as ours.

There are good aspects to the law. It has helped create an environment in which all states now have put in place content standards and are conducting annual reading and math tests aligned with those standards. And all states are participating in the National Assessment of Educational Progress—"the nation’s report card"—providing the most reliable audit yet of the quality of state standards and tests. Through increased school choice and more charter schools, parents have new incentives for involvement in their children’s schools.

Most importantly, schools and districts are reporting on the progress of individual schools. Now we have several years of school-by-school information broken down into subgroups of students. Parents, state legislators, and governors are now paying more attention to education issues and are holding their districts, schools, principals, and teachers accountable. States are plowing ahead with their own reforms.

The lesson of the last 10 years is that it is time to move most decisions about whether teachers and schools are succeeding or failing out of Washington and back to states and communities."

But data from the last 10 years show that more Washington mandates and regulations imposed upon local schools have not worked as well as the authors of No Child Left Behind had hoped. Since 2000, federal funding for programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (whose current version is the No Child Left Behind Act) has increased by 73 percent, but student achievement has remained flat. Most students still are not proficient (think: grade-level) in core subjects. This decade’s experience has reminded us that Washington may be able to create a better environment for school improvement, but Washington cannot make local schools better; only teachers, principals, parents, and communities can.

The federal government can set broad goals, but the secretary of education should not become a national school board chairman instructing 100,000 public schools how to achieve those goals or deciding whether each of those schools and its teachers are succeeding or failing. The Tennessee education commissioner is in a much better position than someone in Washington to help turn around failing schools and close achievement gaps in Memphis or Nashville.

Ever since 1984, when Tennessee’s master-teacher program made it the first state to pay teachers more for teaching well, I have believed that the holy grail of K-12 education is fashioning a fair system of teacher and principal evaluation that measures good teaching based in significant part on student achievement. But experience has taught us that this is much more difficult than it sounds and can best be accomplished state by state, school district by school district, and even school by school. Mandating, defining, and regulating such evaluation systems from Washington would most likely result in a compliance-driven race to the bottom.

See Also

NCLB Turns 10
See more content related to the anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act, including Commentaries, links to Education Week’s coverage over the decade, readers’ comments about the law, and a glossary of selected NCLB terms. View the complete collection.

What is especially encouraging about the last 10 years is that states have made real progress in setting higher standards and improving school performance: This effort began during 1985 to 1986 when governors banded together for a full year’s focus on improving schools in response to Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell’s challenge in “A Nation at Risk.” That work has accelerated during this past decade. Since 2002, all but four states have adopted common-core academic standards; two consortia of states are developing common tests for those standards; and 44 states and the District of Columbia are collaborating on establishing common accountability principles for student achievement through an initiative of the Council of Chief State School Officers, or CCSSO.

The No Child Left Behind Act has been a noble experiment. It has made an important contribution to the national effort to improve the quality of our schools. But there is a difference between a national concern, which education is, and a federal government solution driven by Washington. The lesson of the last 10 years is that it is time to move most decisions about whether teachers and schools are succeeding or failing out of Washington and back to states and communities. The valuable new school-by-school reports produced by No Child Left Behind can provide material for more accurate and useful school report cards devised by parents, school boards, governors, and the secretary of education. But the real job of creating better schools remains where it always has been, with parents and teachers and citizens in their own communities.

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2012 edition of Education Week as NCLB Lessons: It Is Time for Washington to Get Out of the Way


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