Some Progress on No Child Left Behind--But is it Good for Kids?

March 5, 2012

Last week the House made some progress on renewing No Child Left Behind, the controversial education law. Two components of what would be a renewed No Child Left Behind passed a House committee on Tuesday, and would make big changes to federal control and accountability in education.

Federal control

No Child Left Behind gave the federal government more freedom to reform underperforming schools. Last week’s successful bills in the House Education and Workforce Committee were all about reversing some of that federal control. “We aim to shrink federal intrusion in classrooms and return responsibility for student success to states and school districts,” said John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the committee, in a statement. The two measures – the Student Success Act (H.R. 3989) and the Encouraging Innovation and Effective Teachers Act (H.R. 3990) – passed in a party line vote of 23 to 16.

Under the new measures, some school accountability powers now belonging to the U.S. Department of Education would return to state governments. The “adequate yearly progress” metric the federal government uses would be replaced by standards that states devise for themselves. This federal metric demands that all schools meet certain standards for student improvement or else face firings and possible school closings.

All sides seem to acknowledge that the adequate yearly progress metric needs change. It encourages state governments to set weak standards of improvement that they know they can meet and skirt federal punishment. And it looked to threaten many, many schools nationwide that were clearly not going to meet the standard. This is why the Obama administration has offered waivers to state governments to bypass the requirement (as we covered at the time in an edition of this newsletter).

Accountability

Yet child advocates worry about leaving it to the states to determine too much of their own accountability. After all, a lack of accountability in the traditional school system is one of the things No Child Left Behind was created to address.

Child advocates are split on the repeal of the “highly qualified teacher” mandate that was part of one of the bills last week. This part of No Child Left Behind requires schools to have a certain percentage of teachers meeting a federally defined standard of being highly qualified. This standard is debatable at the margins, since some can argue that good teachers don’t necessarily check all the boxes the federal government outlines, while surely some highly qualified teachers aren’t that great in practice. And some teachers who are highly qualified in one subject end up teaching another. But the problem that the highly qualified teachers requirement was meant to fix – that poor school districts have trouble attracting top teaching talent – must be addressed if schooling is to be fair in America.

One thing child advocates can agree on is that it’s good that this legislation would force states to continue collecting detailed performance data on students. One of the best parts of No Child Left Behind has been how states have started reporting detailed information on what students are succeeding or not. This data, which can now be broken down by race, shows startling achievement gaps persisting across the country. The committee bills promise to maintain this data gathering and to make the findings more available to parents and the community.

So with these two measures the House committee makes the case for tweaking No Child Left Behind and somewhat decentralizing schooling in America. But will the legislation make any more progress? Congressional leadership is telling us it wants action on refreshing No Child Left Behind soon. But in an election year, we have doubts these measures can make it to the floor.


This was originally published by Voices by America's Children in their Speaking Out! newsletter. It is reprinted here with permission.