Andrew J. Rotherham is cofounder and publisher of Education Sector and writes the blog Eduwonk.com.
It is hard to find a national issue with a worse noise-to-signal ratio than the No Child Left Behind law. The contentiousness, obfuscation, and sometimes blatant misrepresentations leave parents, teachers, and policymakers baffled about what it requires or what its effects are. They likewise obscure issues the law has clearly highlighted and the steps policymakers can take to make the next version better.
The No Child law put the nation's educational performance problems into stark relief. Barely more than half of minority students earn a traditional four-year high school degree, and substantial gaps in achievement separate students by race and income. Yet in most states and school districts, you could search high and low without finding many schools identified as needing to substantially improve. Those kids always went to school somewhere else. While not without problems, the No Child accountability rules are making school performance more transparent and changing the conversation.
The law is also exposing just how few schools can deliver a powerful instructional program. Overall, the state tests in grades three to eight upon which the law is based are mostly low-level tests of general knowledge and skills. This is why schools with strong teachers and well-developed curriculum do not struggle with "teaching to the test." When schools become test-preparation factories, it illustrates broader problems in K–12 education.
The nation has pursued a standards-based reform policy since the first George Bush was president. But data from various measures raise questions about whether standards-based reform is sufficiently powerful to transform U.S. education from our 20th-century model to the level of performance we need now. Meanwhile, the results the best public and charter public schools attain are impressive, relative to average national performance, but are an insufficient goal for the nation.
Because it had teeth, No Child laid bare the raw politics of education. For a long time, it was assumed that the rules of special-interest politics somehow stopped at the schoolhouse door. Everyone simply wants what is good for the kids, right?
In 1999, the Democratic Leadership Council published an issue of its magazine with the phrase "adults vs. kids" splashed across the cover. That characterization of the dominating tension on school reform was greeted as shocking and impolitic. A decade later, there is little serious debate about it. The intense reaction to the No Child law exposed the political naiveté of thinking otherwise. With teachers unions prioritizing jobs over reform and attacking President Obama's education plans, the delineations on the issue are obvious. In fact, even the interest groups don't pretend anymore. Bob Chanin, the longtime general counsel of the National Education Association, said in his July farewell address that the organization and its affiliates "must never lose sight of the fact that they are unions, and unions first and foremost represent their members."
What all this points to is the need for more ambitious policy and political ideas in the next version of the law. No Child Left Behind was an important "what" law. It forced states to specify performance goals, report data, and increased pressure for better performance. But it was a weak "how" law, too anchored in past approaches to federal education policy. It did little to help states and school districts undertake the ambitious reforms that are necessary to genuinely improve outcomes.
The way forward is as politically treacherous as it is obvious. The law's accountability rules should be updated. In 2001, states could measure school performance in only simple ways. Investments in state data systems make much better measures possible now. Large investments must be made to improve teacher effectiveness, open good new public schools through charter schooling and other strategies, and ensure that better supports are in place for low-income children from birth to age 5.