Having had 10 years of experience with No Child Left Behind, the federal government would do well to seriously reconfigure or scrap it
ON THE 10th anniversary of its passage, No Child Left Behind continues to garner plenty of news coverage and commentary. As the signature piece of education legislation pushed by President George W. Bush, it has, if nothing else, put a spotlight on the way America's public schools educate most of the nation's children. And there's nothing wrong with that.
Known officially as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, NCLB was approved in 2002 with bipartisan support, having been a top campaign promise of the new president. Now, after a decade of observing NCLB in action, its pros and cons are clear.
Chief among its liabilities is that it set unachievable goals and then harshly punished districts that failed to meet them. Educators felt that its one-size-fits-all objectives were unrealistic in a nation that is becoming more diverse in every category. Conservatives who initially enthused about it now use NCLB as an example of federal overreach and meddling in state and local affairs. Thanks to the Great Recession, funding for the program was drying up just when it was needed most.
While these issues are applicable to the NCLB debate in Virginia, the complaint rising above the din here is the program's redundancy next to the state's Standards of Accreditation, for public school accountability, and its Standards of Learning, to assess student knowledge. Initiated in the mid-1990s under the administration of then-Gov. George Allen, the SOLs, like NCLB, aim to gauge students' proficiency in particular subject areas. In the real world of elementary and secondary school classrooms, NCLB became just another bureaucratic layer--something to steal energy from the real business of learning.
The SOLs came under fire for forcing teachers to follow a strict curriculum, challenging them to work in time for more abstract learning. (Of course, before the SOLs, too many "abstract learners" were graduating with heads lightly stocked with concrete knowledge.) As educators were making that watershed adjustment, along came No Child with another list of requirements.
With a 2014 deadline looming for a 100 percent passing rate required under NCLB, the Obama administration countered that improbability with a waiver or exemption program. Virginia was expected early this year to join 11 other states in applying for a waiver from key aspects of the program. All but five states have expressed some interest in NCLB "probation," although many haven't pulled the trigger out of fear they would lose federal funding.
Meanwhile, the Virginia Board of Education is in the throes of toughening the content of the much-copied SOL program.
The federal government already has ways of keeping track of student performance across the country--chiefly, the venerable National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as "The Nation's Report Card."
Certainly every state welcomes federal aid for education, but as long as they are taking care of business on their own, such aid shouldn't come with stringent NCLB strings attached.