Fixing No Child Left Behind

Our view: The law's original goal of holding underperforming schools accountable has become a ticking time bomb that threatens to punish school districts across the country

July 18, 2011

The news last week that nearly 90 percent of Baltimore City elementary and middle schools failed last year to make adequate yearly progress is less an indictment of the city educational system than it is evidence of the flaws of the Bush-era's No Child Left Behind Act of 2003.

In its day, the law did great service to the country by focusing much-needed attention on the crisis in American public education and forcing the nation to come to grips with the idea that failing schools should be held accountable rather than allowing them to continue with business as usual.

But the law also had a number of unintended consequences that worked against its original goal of making American students more competitive compared to their global peers. One was its requirement that schools show adequate yearly progress on raising scores or face some form of restructuring, which turned out to actually work against underperforming schools that were trying to improve by making the yearly progress targets more difficult to achieve with each passing year.

Compounding the problem was the law's insistence that states bring 100 percent of their students to proficiency in reading and math by 2014. It was a laudable goal at the time, but in hindsight it was one that also proved counterproductive because it encouraged states to water down the curriculum in order to pass as many students as possible and in some cases prompted educators to resort to cheating in order to show results.

The upshot is that while Congress passed NCLB with high hopes in 2003, it has since turned into a ticking time bomb that now threatens to put tens of thousands of public schools at risk. Unless Congress acts to change it this year, schools across the country could be punished for failing to fulfill the flawed terms of he act.

That's why even though the failure rate among Baltimore schools is shocking, the city is hardly alone in its predicament. Because of the faulty way the law was constructed, meeting the adequate annual progress requirement becomes more difficult every year for even the best schools because the benchmarks for success keep going up regardless of how much progress students are making.

As a result, adequate yearly progress rates are dropping across the state, and schools in both the city and the suburbs are being labeled as failing. Indeed, statewide, many of the schools that missed AYP this year would be considered stellar in every other context. And the problem isn't unique to Maryland. Education Secretary Arne Duncan estimates that if nothing is done, within a few years as many as 80,000 of the nation's 100,000 public schools could officially be labeled as failing.

Secretary Duncan is pressuring Congress to reform the No Child Left Behind law before that happens, and if Congress doesn't act, he says he will start issuing waivers on his own. If it comes to that, he should do so, but Congress needs to own up to its mistakes in drafting this law, especially its emphasis on punishing schools labeled as failures and its reliance on a narrow array of test results as the sole measure of progress.

Since the law was passed, many states, including Maryland, have developed newer and more sophisticated ways of holding schools accountable, such as revising the methods for evaluating teachers and moving toward a common national curriculum that raises standards across the board, not just in reading and math.

There is little danger that we will back from the focus on standards and accountability that No Child Left Behind brought — more recent education reforms through the Race to the Top competition and other developments will see to that. But we can and must produce a more rational and balanced approach to measuring educational progress.

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