When Congress passed the federal No Child Left Behind law in 2001, requiring states to develop higher standards for math and reading instruction and to administer tests measuring the results, the goal was to make schools more accountable for student achievement. Since the law went into effect, there have been gains: A recent report by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, for example, found that American students in grades 4 and 8 had made steady improvement in math over the last decade.
But the law also has been criticized for giving the federal government too much authority over what is taught while not providing enough support to local school districts to fix the problems of troubled schools.
During the campaign, President-elect Barack Obama said he would like to see the law made more effective. But his comments were couched in generalities, and he hasn't yet named his choice for secretary of education. If an Obama administration intends to make NCLB practical and meaningful for states like Maryland, it will have to build consensus on what needs to change in order to address the challenges of the future.
A growing number of educators believe that a major flaw in NCLB is its punitive focus. Schools whose students fail to show sufficient improvement on standardized achievement tests are judged to be failing despite the progress those students have made from year to year. That's been counterproductive. Second, the law established a mandate for teacher certification and qualification without really examining what makes an effective teacher or how to bring talented people into the profession and retain them. Nor does it take account of the costs of investing in a highly effective, qualified work force, particularly in urban areas and in fields such as special education, math and science. These are severe barriers to recruiting good teachers to the classroom.
Still another problem is the lack of a consistent national standard on what students should know. Each state is free to establish its own achievement goals and testing regimes; the result is a hodgepodge that may or may not reflect real improvement in student achievement. A national standard that encouraged a broad approach to learning would be an improvement over the present impetus to teach to the test.
None of this is to suggest that NCLB doesn't contain important elements that should remain, particularly its emphasis on schools' responsibility to reach every child. But the law is a blunt instrument when its impact is reduced to testing. Policymakers need to have a better grasp on what kids should be learning, what schools need to really improve and how to measure both in a way that's fair to kids, teachers and their schools. Until those questions are answered, NCLB risks creating an elaborate framework of accountability without substance.