That's certainly a start, but what's even more important to know is that politicians and lobbyists aren't the only ones who hold the keys to change. You do, too. "Parents can actually be more powerful than teachers in getting what we need," says Lily Eskelsen, vice president of the National Education Association (NEA). "No one's going to question that they want what's best for their kid. That's because a parent has only one constituent." And, really, only one message: School should be a rich place of exploration, a place where children are treated as more than a test score. Are you ready to take your stand? Here's a simple, honest look at what the law intended, what it's achieved (yes, there are some high points), and what desperately needs to be improved.
Before No Child Left Behind was enacted, there was no clear accountability for how well schools were educating students, and there wasn't a sense of responsibility for those performing at a low level, says Democratic California Congressman George Miller, a key architect of the law and now chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor. "When students graduated from high school, we didn't know whether they were reading at the fifth-, eighth-, or twelfth-grade level," he says. "And we knew very little about students within grades. Were fourth-graders reading at fourth-grade level?" The "aha" moment came when researchers discovered how poorly many low-income and minority kids were doing, he says. "Schools were not doing well by them, and many were performing below grade level."
So NCLB was enacted with the goals of holding schools accountable for improving student achievement and closing the performance gap, ending what former President Bush called "the soft bigotry of low expectations." The lawmakers also wanted to raise the bar for all students, especially given that American children were slipping behind kids in other countries. "We needed a general shaking up of schools and an acceptance that the standard had to be excellence, not just getting by," Rep. Miller says. In some respects, the law has made a positive impact. Math and reading scores have improved overall (with a few big caveats -- keep reading!), and the law has put a spotlight on inequality and made failure unacceptable, even in low-income neighborhoods where it used to be considered inevitable. These are all easy principles to get behind, but like most big ideas in Washington, the problems arose when nice theories met real life. Take a look at three of the most important goals, the mandates to reach them, and where things went oh-so-wrong.
The Goal: Set High Standards For All
NCLB Mandates: Every state must define "proficiency" in reading and math for grades three to eight, and ensure that nearly 100 percent of children reach those standards by 2014, even those who aren't fluent in English or have disabilities. The exceptions: Up to 3 percent of a district's students may be held to lower targets if they have severe cognitive disabilities; test scores for a student learning English as a second language don't count until he's spent 12 months in American schools. The thinking was that by making success an expectation for every student regardless of class, race, or circumstance, the achievement gap would narrow.
What's Not Working: Let's start with proficiency. Because each state sets its own standards, there are often very different definitions of what a student must know to pass: When Department of Education researchers compared state standards against a federal test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), they found that fourth-graders in Mississippi would need to score 161 on the NAEP to be considered proficient in reading, while in Massachusetts, a student would need a 234.
Worse, by forcing states to make sure nearly all their students reach the same standard by 2014, the law has actually encouraged them to set the bar quite low, says Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the education-focused Thomas B. Fordham Institute. And once states realized how badly schools were doing, many dropped their standards even more. "In some states, almost all students will pass unless they have a serious learning disability," he says. "It's like requiring 100 percent of students to sink a free throw, but letting states decide how high the hoop should be and how far away the kids get to stand." What this ultimately means for parents, he adds, is that even though they may be told their children are "proficient" in reading and math, it doesn't necessarily mean the kids are on grade level or on track for college. Which is exactly why you have to take news that scores are improving with a gigantic grain of salt.
As for the achievement gap, "Some schools are having remarkable success with children who were previously left behind, but too often, this is the exception, not the rule," says Rep. Miller. And while it is true that minority students are scoring higher than ever, NCLB itself can't claim sole responsibility for the trend, says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, DC. The national push for better and more equitable schooling started a couple of decades before the law was ever conceived. What's more, the gap was actually narrower back in the 1970s and 1980s than it is today. Because right along with minority students, white students have improved as well.