This month marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s landmark education legislation championed by bipartisan leaders ranging from Ted Kennedy to John Boehner. It was coherent, thoughtful and premised on a core theory as to why schools struggled: the soft bigotry of low expectations for students and insufficient attention to holding schools responsible for children’s learning.
While some good has come from NCLB’s core approach – notably a clearer focus on outputs over inputs, the disaggregation of student results by race and ethnicity, and a revolution in education data – it is hard to argue that the law has lived up to its promise. Roughly one-third of students graduated ready for college or a career back then, and the same is true today. Performance on international assessments haven’t moved in 20 years, while recent trends on the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicate that performance is going in the wrong direction.
Nor did NCLB put the nation on a path toward any semblance of educational equity, as achievement gaps haven’t shifted in two decades. Eight percent of Black 12th graders, for example, are now proficient in math – up from 6 percent back in 2005. At that rate of progress, it would take another 200 years for their performance to match that of white students, and that would assume white students’ performance stayed the same.
Now, as schools try to address the profound learning losses caused by the pandemic, the NCLB playbook seems wildly out of touch. Students returned to school this fall in need of real solutions to support their educational and social-emotional recovery following 18 months of profound disruption. But for many schools, the challenges of filling an unprecedented level of staffing vacancies, implementing COVID-19 precautions and managing parent politics have taken all priority. Accountability based on end-of-year grade-level assessments may well be the last thing on their mind.