Michael Cohen, a senior education official under President Clinton, is president of Achieve, a nonpartisan education reform organization.
No Child Left Behind represents a continuation of a 45-year federal commitment to improving the education of poor children.
The law's greatest achievement was insisting that data on student achievement be broken down and reported by subgroups, focusing the attention of educators and policymakers right where it belongs: on the troubling and persistent gaps in achievement among poor, minority, English-language learning, and special-needs students. For too long, the performance of these groups was masked by overall achievement, but the law pulled the curtain back, demonstrated long-suspected gaps, and demanded improvement.
In many schools, this spotlight and the growing pressures of the No Child law's accountability provisions were sufficient to spark improved teaching and learning. But there has been too little improvement in the lowest-performing schools, where the challenges are the most severe. Even the law's most ardent supporters will have to acknowledge that the pace of education improvement remains too slow, the achievement gaps among groups too large, and the distance between the academic performance of U.S. students and those in other countries too great.
One clear lesson is that standards, testing, and accountability are necessary but not sufficient for improving our schools. Substantially more attention must be paid to giving teachers and students the tools they need: a rich, rigorous, and engaging curriculum, well-designed classroom assessments, and the support they need to succeed. Unfortunately, policymakers have made this mistake before, designing legislation on the premise that if educators are held accountable for results, they will change their practices to produce higher scores. When the expected results haven't materialized, legislators tighten the accountability screws.
But even the most dedicated and highly motivated teachers and principals can't produce better results if they don't have the training, support, and tools to get the job done.
We've also learned the limits of federal command and control. No Child Left Behind went too far with its highly prescriptive formula for individual school accountability. It requires states to measure how well students perform on standardized tests, with the unrealistic goal of 100 percent scoring "proficient" by 2014 but not accounting for how much students have grown academically. The result is a growing number of schools identified as low performing but few state or local education systems with the ability to adequately respond.
We've also learned the limits of each state acting independently. While increasing the stakes attached to test results, the law let each state set its own standards and define "proficient." Too many set the bar low. And while "proficient" means dramatically different things from state to state, rarely does it mean that students deemed proficient are academically prepared for anything, much less college and careers.
States have been working together outside the No Child law to fix this problem. Through the American Diploma Project, 35 states that educate nearly 85 percent of all U.S. public school students have been working with college faculty and employers to improve math and English standards so that students are prepared for education after high school and for 21st-century careers. Because the expectations of these states are now anchored in the real-world demands students must meet after they leave school, state standards have converged dramatically. Fifteen states have also worked to develop common algebra exams to measure how well students meet these more rigorous high school math standards.
This work has sparked a broader movement, led by the nation's governors and state school chiefs, to develop standards that focus clearly on the most essential knowledge and skills students must acquire through their K–12 education in order to be prepared for life after high school. These standards will provide teachers, parents, and students a very clear picture, grade by grade, of what is most important for students to learn.
Though this is a state-led effort, the federal government is about to provide support. States that adopt common standards and tests will get a leg up in the competition for the $4 billion Race to the Top fund. And Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has set aside $350 million to help states work together to develop common assessments aligned to these standards. An important promise of widely adopted standards is that states can work together to develop shared tools such as curricula, textbooks, online resources, and professional development so that standards and assessments—finally—become actualized in classrooms.
These common efforts by the states aren't a panacea, but they will provide an important foundation for dedicated teachers, principals, and state and local education leaders who are working hard every day to improve student achievement. They should also help inform the next reauthorization of the federal law and solve some of the law's most significant shortcomings.