At the Department of Education headquarters in Washington, officials no longer refer to the No Child Left Behind law by name. Last June, the quaint red schoolhouse the Bush administration built in front of the department building as a symbol of his signature domestic policy was torn down. While the impact NCLB has had on the nation's classroom is still the subject of fervent debate, there's no doubt that the Obama administration intends to strike a new path for education reform.
When President George W. Bush signed NCLB in 2002, the policy met with bipartisan praise and looked set to become the most influential federal reform of the nation's schools since desegregation in the 1950s. Today, efforts to reauthorize the law—something that was scheduled to happen in 2007—continue to languish in Congress, unable to gather enough momentum from either party in either chamber. Its sinking trajectory demonstrates how difficult it can be for politicians in Washington to improve the quality of education offered in classrooms across the country.
The attitude many educators, politicians, and the general public have toward NCLB can be characterized in a single word: conflicted. The law mandates that 100 percent of K-12 public school students meet state proficiency standards in reading and math by 2014. Schools that miss the mark could face sanctions that include staff restructuring or takeovers by outside agencies. Most educators and activists agree the law has helped expose wide gaps in academic achievement between white students and their economically disadvantaged, minority peers and has identified low-performing schools.
The core criticism of NCLB centers on whether meeting these requirements has, paradoxically, forced schools to lower the caliber of the education they provide. Critics assert that because NCLB provides no federal standards for what students at each grade level should be learning, states can "dumb down" the difficulty of their reading and math tests to meet the law's requirements.
"The biggest problem with NCLB is that it doesn't encourage high learning standards," says Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "The net effect is that we are lying to children and parents by telling kids they are succeeding when they are not."
The pressure Duncan and the Obama administration now face is how to improve NCLB so students are challenged to learn, not just score well on standardized tests. Many education experts are speculating that Obama's Race to the Top initiative is essentially a dry run for the next version of NCLB. The Education Department is committing up to $350 million of the $4.35 billion available in competitive Race to the Top grants to support the creation of assessments, or tests, linked to common standards. (The National Governors Association already has started work on common standards.) Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat who heads the House education committee, says he expects that the results of Race to the Top will influence the shape of the reauthorization legislation for NCLB.
Education Department officials have started holding meetings nationwide with teachers, parents, and others to get their input on changes to the NCLB legislation. While department officials might not entirely agree with NCLB's practices, they can't walk away from the law yet, either.
"Duncan is sticking a toe into these turbid waters," says Chester Finn, president of the nonprofit Thomas B. Fordham Institute. "He is . . . declaring that we must use [NCLB's] current tools—including standardized testing—until we develop better ones."
Getting everyone in the debate to settle on which tools are better could break the NCLB logjam in Congress.