Despite a tide of resistance in school districts all over the country, federal education reforms now in their third year are beginning to do what few such efforts ever achieve: change what goes on in American classrooms.
For the first time in US history, an overwhelming majority of states now test new teachers. They also test nearly all students, including those deemed learning disabled. And they are publicly reporting information on the safety conditions in public schools that either hadn't been collected or was locked away in file drawers, according to a study on the state implementation of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act released Wednesday by the Education Commission of the States.
But the report also concludes that few states are on track for ensuring a qualified teacher in every classroom. Fewer than half of states, for instance, are providing high-quality help to failing schools. And many states don't have systems to collect the massive amount of data required to meet the new law's standards.
More than 20 states have asked for relief from the new law, which has become the butt of jokes on late-night television and the leading teachers' union website. Backers say it's a sign that the new law is taking hold.
"I'm glad that there is consternation with it," says Sandy Cress, senior adviser to President Bush on education and a consultant with school districts on NCLB. "It means that people are wrestling with it. Like Job wrestling with the angel, there's good at the end of it."
Teachers in Pueblo, Colo., thought they were doing a good job educating mostly poor and Hispanic kids - until they started seeing statewide test results.
"We called it 'CSAT shock,' " says school superintendent Joyce Bales of Colorado's student assessment program. "People thought they were doing a lot better than they were."
But the poor results on the 1997 program - a precursor to the NCLB Act - spurred Pueblo schools to teach, and reteach, all students until they could read.
"I fully support No Child Left Behind," says Ms. Bales, who calls her district "the most data-driven district in the state." In a recent study of Colorado schools that "beat the odds" in educating poor students, six of the 20 were in her district.
Bales and other educators across the nation don't want to give NCLB all the credit for this. Colorado and states such as Texas and North Carolina began requiring schools to test all students and report results by race, poverty level, and disability status prior to the federal requirement.
But the potential sanctions in the new law, including loss of federal funding, have become an incentive to do more.
Educators are calling this new push for achievement a new civil right for the 21st century. The battles of the latter half of the 20th century, they say, were over access to public schools - especially for minority students. The battle of the 21st century will be to make sure that all students achieve in public schools.
It's a goal that has created unlikely political partnerships. President Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts worked together on the NCLB Act. Despite strong opposition from teachers unions, a key Democratic constituency, Kennedy still backs the principles of the new law - especially the mandate that all students be tested.
Meanwhile, many conservatives who once campaigned on ending a federal role in education now back the most muscular Department of Education ever, in the hope that it will lead to greater school choice.
"To many, NCLB embodies the nation's recognition of and commitment to two imperatives, one moral and the other economic; namely, that education is a civil right, and that a high-quality, high-performing education system is vital to maintaining America's competitiveness in the world economy," concludes the ECS Report to the Nation.
The report, produced by a 50-state education consortium but funded by a $2 million grant from the US Education Department, urges Washington to "not allow the nation to retreat on the promises or possibilities of NCLB."
One of the surprises of the new act has been its impact on suburban districts. Bolstered by above-average aggregate test scores, these schools had been viewed as doing a good job, until disaggregated results revealed weaknesses.
"Suburban school districts ... didn't expect to have schools on watch lists," says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. "[NCLB] made them realize they are accountable for all groups."
African-American parents in Lower Merion, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb, were shocked to learn that 60 percent of black students score below proficient levels in a district known for its high performance.
"NCLB has uncovered data that had been previously buried in our district and other districts as well," says Linda Heller, a member of Concerned Black Parents, a new local advocacy group that is using NCLB data to lobby for more help for low-performing students. One result: Special programs this summer to build skills for children who are below proficiency.
Progress is still "frustratingly slow," she says. "But now the information is so public it's impossible to look the other way."