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Grading 'No Child Left Behind'

More than ever, American workers must compete in a global market that places a premium on the skills needed to compete in an increasingly high-tech world.

Unfortunately, far too many American children still leave the public education system unprepared to succeed in the modern economy.

For 40 years, Congress has poured money into programs designed to improve educational opportunities for American students, particularly those in disadvantaged communities. The federal government now spends more than $66 billion annually on K-12 education — or $1,400 for every public school student — and yet poor and minority children still lag far behind their peers on achievement measures. A recent national test found that nearly half of all African-American fourth-graders lack “basic” reading skills.

In 2001, the Bush administration proposed a new approach to federal education policy: the No Child Left Behind Act, premised on the notion that not a single American child should fall prey to what President Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

The bill was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

No Child Left Behind’s core provisions are that, in order to receive federal education grants, states must test all students in grades three through eight and report the data, including factors such as race and socioeconomic status. Schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress toward achieving state standards receive new funding, and — over time —students in consistently “failing” schools receive the opportunity to transfer to another public school or participate in after-school tutoring programs designed to boost achievement.

The jury is still out on whether No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is having a positive impact. But four years into the law, there’s enough evidence to begin assessing its strengths and weaknesses as a policy.

First, the strengths: NCLB’s sunshine provisions have forced schools to begin providing more information about student performance. Like a patient in a hospital, it’s important to begin by diagnosing the problem. These testing and accountability provisions likely have forced some public schools to make tough decisions about how to generate improved student performances.

NCLB also has empowered parents with some control over their child’s education, such as in after-school tutoring programs. It advanced an important principle: Schools should be accountable to parents, and the best way for parents to exercise that accountability is to give them some freedom and flexibility over their child’s education.

Unfortunately, the law stopped far short of providing real parental choice — one of No Child Left Behind’s key weaknesses. It failed to change the dynamic that public schools operate under because most parents really don’t have control of the money that will be spent on their child’s education.

Another weakness: New evidence suggests that the accountability provisions of NCLB are having unintended consequences. Instead of trying to improve student achievement, some states may be watering down their own achievement standards to avoid accountability sanctions.

According to the Fordham Foundation, between 2003 and 2005, 20 states have seen dramatic improvement in the “proficiency” rates on state exams that determine whether states meet federal guidelines for adequate yearly progress. But children in these same states have not posted similar gains on the federally mandated National Assessment of Educational Progress, leading some experts to declare that NCLB has started a “race to the bottom” in terms of lower state standards.

Congress is scheduled to reauthorize No Child Left Behind in 2007, and there is already a drumbeat of opposition to the program from both left and right. On the left, the public education interest groups are pushing for an end to the testing and accountability programs. On the right, conservatives — always wary of the federal government’s involvement in local education — are calling for a return to local control.

A promising compromise, potentially satisfying both left and right: Keep the “sunshine” provisions of NCLB but give states and local authorities the power to decide how best to use funds to increase academic achievement. By keeping testing and reporting requirements, the federal government could ensure that state policymakers remain committed to seeing that every child succeeds. Ending Beltway micromanagement would allow states to seek new solutions.

Over the past decade, states nationwide have sought to improve their school systems through innovative reforms, such as charter schools, school vouchers and merit pay. Giving states the freedom to try new solutions would help policymakers from across the country learn which reforms are working in other states.

Ensuring that American children get a quality education is critical for their individual futures and for the future of our nation’s economy. But before America’s children can be assured first-rate educational opportunities, we need an education system that allows policymakers to learn some lessons of their own.

Dan Lips is Education Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.