December 11, 2015: This has been a historic week for the advancement of education in the US. This past Wednesday, in a rare act of solidarity, a unified non-partisan Congress voted to eliminate the dated “No Child Left Behind” law, which many people believe was a faulty policy from it’s inception (with statistics to support this opinion.) The 2002 law, which had actually expired in 2007, will be replaced by the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” which President Obama is expected to sign today. The House passed their version of the measure last week with a bipartisan vote of 359-64, while the Senate showed it’s support of the bill with a strong 85-12 vote, sending the re-authorization to the president’s desk for final approval.
Republican senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, was a chief author of the bill along with Democratic Patty Murray of Washington; Education Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., and ranking Democrat Bobby Scott of Virginia were the primary sponsors of the bill in the House.
“This is the biggest rewrite of our education laws in 25 years,” said the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan. “I’m very proud of this bill.”
When asked about the successful passage of his bill, Senator Alexander stated, “It will unleash a flood of excitement and innovation and student achievement that we haven’t seen in a long time. But it will come community by community, state by state, rather than through Washington, D.C.”
While the new law still requires mandatory testing, it returns the authority to the states, not the federal government, to decide how to use the testing results in evaluating teachers and schools. The “Every Student Succeeds Act” encourages states to limit the time students spend on testing, and it will reduce penalties for underperforming schools.
No Child Left Behind: Good Idea, Poor Execution
No Child Left Behind, which was passed under George W. Bush’s tenure, also had strong bipartisan support in 2001. The new law put a great deal of power into the hands of the Federal government, specifically the Secretary of Education. The law, essentially turned the U.S. Department of Education into the National Board of Education. It introduced high-stakes standardized testing to gauge students in reading and math from the third to eighth grades, with the ultimate goal of making every student proficient in those subjects by 2014. The results of the initiative led to an over-emphasis on standardized testing for reading and math, and less importance placed on “nonacademic” studies, such as art, music, and sports.
Additionally and equally as important, No Child Left Behind was intended to improve educational opportunities and overall achievement of disadvantaged students (racial and ethnic minorities, low-income students, English-as-second-language students,) and provide more equal opportunities for children with disabilities or other special needs. President Bush’s goal was that by 2014, 100% of students would perform at grade level.
Unfortunately, that ambitious goal was never achieved. The reality is that, according to many education experts, things have gotten worse in almost every measurable sector:
- Nationally, SAT scores have declined.
- Scores of American students for the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exam have dropped in comparison to students in other countries.
- The National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card, found that rate of students’ progress has decreased when compared to the decade before No Child Left Behind was enacted. This held true for both the general school population and across more specific demographics.
- No Child Left Behind Act required “evidence-based” therapies be employed for students with both physical and learning disabilities, which precluded newer or “unproven” techniques. States used this requirement as rationalization to refuse to utilize nontraditional therapies they were untrained in, such as Facilitated Communication, Music Therapy rather than to make the effort to develop the skills they needed.
- School officials were forced to focus more on meeting annual testing goals, rather than providing a well-rounded curriculum. Under the law, schools that didn’t make “adequate yearly progress” faced loss of federal funding and other drastic sanctions, including school board reorganization and school closings, if they failed to meet expectations.
- Students were required to take as many as 20 standardized exams a year. The amount of time teachers are forced to devote to test preparation drastically reduces actual teaching time.
- Schools began to face sanctions, including closings, if they failed to meet expectations. No Child Left Behind began to lose support among both Republicans and Democrats as the imposed penalties caused struggling schools more harm than good.
The No Child Left Behind law expired in 2007, but was not reauthorized, updated, or changed because, in what has become a typical conundrum in Washington politics, members of Congress could not come up with a consensus of what role the federal government should play in education. While Republicans pushed for more autonomy for states and school districts, Democrats fought to ensure that racial minorities, low-income families, and the disabled would be protected, and that access to a good education for all would be available in every state or school district.
Every Student Succeeds: The Education Mandate for the Future
So the question is, what’s new and different about the Every Student Succeeds Act the makes lawmakers think it is a much better program than No Child Left Behind? Some of the basic differences between the two laws include:
- The Department of Education will no longer have the power to force states to adopt difficult-to-execute education policies, such as using students’ standardized test scores to judge teachers performance, in exchange for grant funds. Those types of decisions will now be determined by the individual states.
- Annual yearly progress requirements will be eliminated, as will the harsh penalties imposed on school districts that didn’t meet them.
- While states will still be required to test students annually in reading and math from third to eighth grade, and at least once in high school, the number of standardized tests given each year should be greatly reduced. The new legislation encourages states to set limits on the amount of time students spend on testing.
- State and local school officials will have more input in the design and execution of the standardized tests, the results of which will will weigh as heavily when evaluating schools’ performances. Additional factors to measure academic improvement must also be employed to make final determinations, such as graduation rates, proficiency in English for nonnative speakers, or a student performance measure, such as college readiness, dropout rates, suspensions and school climate, which should make it easier for educators to replace some of the rote test preparation with more actual teaching.
- The new law eliminates the federal mandate that teacher evaluations be tied to student performance on the statewide tests, which was creating a culture of over-testing and detracting from the learning environment. States and local school boards will still have the option to link the test scores to teachers’ performance reviews, but this will no longer be a mandatory requirement.
- More children from lower income families will have access to preschool through a new grant program that will use existing funding to support state s’ efforts. Additionally, states will be required to help the weakest 5 percent of all schools, high schools that graduate fewer than 67 percent of their students on time, and schools where a subgroup of students “consistently underperforms.”
- The new law mandates that states report performance data broken out by subgroups based on factors like income, race, language barriers, and learning disabilities. Education advocates consider this to be a crucial tool for addressing the achievement gap.
- The federal government may no longer mandate or give states incentives, such as the Race to the Top program, to adopt or maintain any particular set of academic standards. This means that the increasingly controversial Common Core may become a thing of the past.
- The bill requires more transparency about test scores so that parents and other concerned community members will have a clearer picture of how students in their states and local schools are doing.
- The legislation requires that test scores be broken down by race, family income and disability status.
- Parents will be able to see how per-pupil funding breaks down by state, district and school.
- In addition to substantially limiting the federal government’s role in public education, the new law will bar the Education Department from telling states and local districts how to assess school and teacher performance. It will also end the exemption waivers given to more than 40 states to work around the parts of No Child Left Behind, such as the requirement of having all students proficient in reading and math by 2014, that appeared to be unattainable.
- The law includes $250 million in annual funding for early childhood education, although the funds will be under the control of the Department of Health and Human Services, not by the Department of Education.
How the “Every Student Succeeds Act” May Affect Disabled / Special Needs Students
Of the many negative aspects that No Child Left Behind generated, the one that was most concerning for parents of children with physical or neurological disabilities was that it required schools to only use “evidence-based” therapies for the education of special needs students, which gave school systems an easy way to refuse the use of new, so-called “unproven” techniques like supported typing. While, at this time, it is unclear how quickly or easily educators will adapt to these new requirements, certain provisions in the new law offer a glimmer of hope for the disabled, who, it could be argued, belong to the last group of disenfranchised people in our society.
- The new law maintains the old requirement that test scores be made public, but goes a step further by requiring more detailed reporting. As a result, we’ll know where the most vulnerable students are. There will be still be fights over accountability, but those will be at the state level, and advocates will need to keep up the pressure for equity.
- The law defines the concept that states must develop standards to make students college and career-ready. According to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, “This is the first time in the history of the nation that college and career-ready standards are going to be the law of the land. That’s a massive breakthrough.” As it is worded, this provision alone puts a new weapon into the hands of those advocating for their equal rights under the law as citizens of the United States.
- The law also includes new safeguards to ensure states keep tabs on their most underserved students. We interpret this to mean that the state will need to develop new methods to educate their disabled students, arguably the most underserved segment of our population, rather than simply classifying them as unteachable and placing them into worthless “Life Skills” training.
According to a statement by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), “Passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act is an important step in moving away from a one-size-fits-all education system, which is not working for our children. This bill gives states and local school districts more flexibility to use federal funds to provide resources and to teach their students in a way that best works for them.”
(links open in new windows)
Why the New Education Law Is Good for Children Left Behind; David L. Kirp, NY Times Op/ED Contributor, December 10, 2015
Power to the states: Education law rewrite passes Congress; Jennifer C. Kerr, Associated Press, December 9, 2015
The No Child Left Behind replacement could disrupt California’s school rating plans; Joy Resmovits, Contact Reporter, LA Times, December 9, 2015
Senate Approves Overhaul of No Child Left Behind Law; Emmarie Huettman, NY Times, December 9, 2015
‘No Child Left Behind’ Is No More; Russell Berman, The Atlantic, December 9, 2015
No Child Left Behind Has Finally Been Left Behind; Lauren Camera, U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 9, 2015