Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers.
What have we learned from the No Child Left Behind Act? In a word: lots. Unfortunately, most of what we have learned shows that while the law's mission of creating high standards for all children was critical, its focus on stakes (the faulty emphasis on tests) and sticks (punishing schools in need of help) hasn't strengthened public education.
I had high hopes for the law in 2002, when it was enacted. I was not alone in being optimistic and heartened by the renewed federal commitment to supporting public education. In particular, those of us committed to seeing all our students succeed, no matter their ZIP code, applauded the focused attention on eradicating the achievement gap.
But hope, no matter its wellspring, can falter under the weight of reality. And after years of living with and working under the law, the simple truth is that it has not achieved its stated objectives, its flaws outweigh its goals, and funding for it never approached promised levels.
As the administration and lawmakers look toward reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—named No Child Left Behind in its last iteration—they must build upon its original intent, which was to "level the playing field" for disadvantaged students and be a core part of the war on poverty. Today, more than 40 years after it was originally enacted, there still is no surer weapon in the arsenal to help eradicate poverty than a high-quality public education.
But now, that education must be different, more rigorous and richer in content, if we are to give our students what they need to succeed in a 21st-century, knowledge-based economy. The No Child law—in its focus and its funding—has never provided schools and teachers with the tools or resources required to prepare students for that new reality.
Instead, it has effectively written into law an unbalanced focus on testing rather than teaching. Tests have become more about telling us how much students can remember and less about telling us what they have—or have not—learned.
Too often, the tests are not aligned to the curriculum that students are taught all year, and, as a consequence, test results may not accurately indicate what a student has learned. And teachers caution that the excessive number of tests and the high stakes attached to them consume inordinate amounts of one thing they and their students have too little of: time.
Make no mistake, teachers know the value—and the limitations—of high-quality tests, aligned to a balanced curriculum. Good tests can help teachers determine how their students are performing and identify the areas in which their students need assistance. Like an X-ray, however, tests can diagnose, but they cannot cure.
The No Child law imposes grave sanctions for failure to meet arbitrary targets, even for schools that have made significant progress. The result has been unproductive punishments for some schools and inadequate support for others. And in making accountability for some, but not all, its hallmark, the law has diminished the importance of shared responsibility. Students need well-prepared and engaged teachers; teachers need cooperative and supportive school leadership; and administrators need the latitude and resources to offer rich and rigorous curricula, free of the pressures to "dumb down" their standards in order to "look good."
And they all need parents and communities to reinforce outside the classroom what is taught inside the classroom.
This law has succeeded in shining a bright light on the needs of students who too often have been hidden behind schoolwide and districtwide "curves." This is not an inconsequential achievement. The greater accomplishment, however, will be in not simply highlighting their needs but in addressing those needs.
Struggling schools need real help—not punishments or unproven approaches, as currently prescribed in the law. The American Federation of Teachers has a long track record of working with administrators, parents, and communities to provide real help to struggling students and low-performing schools. We've learned that intensive interventions, proven programs, and adequate resources can transform students' lives and their schools.