Next round begins for No Child Left Behind
After five years, the education reform law has effected major change, but now must be voted on again by Congress.
When President Bush signed the landmark No Child Left Behind Act five years ago Monday, he conducted a three-state road show, touted its bipartisan roots, and promised it would put US schools "on a new path of reform, and a new path of results."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In the five years since, critics and admirers of the bill tend to agree about the reform part, but say they're still waiting for results.
Achievement levels are creeping up toward the 2014 deadline when all public school children are supposed to be "proficient" at math and reading, and the racial and economic achievement gaps have narrowed slightly in a few cases, but not at all in others.
Yet even the act's harshest critics admit it has changed the conversation about education in America, and has focused attention on poor-achieving groups of students who had been overlooked.
This year, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is getting particular attention: It's not just the five-year anniversary, but the year the act expires and must be voted on again by Congress – an opportunity many are hoping will be used to revise the law – either a lot or a little – to make it more effective.
"I'm actually even more hopeful about this second iteration of this law than I was about the first," says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. "In general, I think the law has been more helpful than not. For a piece of legislation that really changed the conversation from universal access to universal proficiency, I wouldn't necessarily expect to get that paradigm shift right the first time around."
In its five years, the law has affected nearly every elementary and high school in the country.
Testing is now conducted every year from Grades 3 through 8, and students' performance is measured against that of the rest of their state and is broken down by race and income level. If any of those groups fails to make the "adequate yearly progress" two years in a row, the school is placed on an "in need of improvement" list. Schools on the list that receive federal funds are then subject to mounting sanctions and extra services.
And that's just the most visible change. The ultimate goal is to have every child meeting standards by 2014.
For now, though, the results are less clear. Scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), called the nation's report card, have climbed slowly in reading and math for some groups, but the number of students who are "proficient" is still discouraging.
Just 41 percent of all white fourth graders meet the standard in reading, for instance. For both reading and math, only 13 percent of all black fourth graders are "proficient." Teachers complain of the stigma of being a failing school, and principals worry about the myriad ways they could end up on a watch list.
The Department of Education emphasizes the long-term NAEP trends, noting that more progress in the reading scores of 9-year-olds was made between 1999 and 2004 than in the previous 28 years combined. But in general, even supporters say they're happier with the conversation the law has jumpstarted than with the results.