A teacher with a class of elementary school students

commentary

(Philadelphia Inquirer)

January 8, 2013

No Child Left Behind, Act II

by Brian M. Stecher

Eleven years have passed since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001—popularly known as NCLB—was signed into law. NCLB mandates increased accountability for school performance, gives states and communities freedom in the use of Title I funding, targets federal funds to proven education programs and methods, and provides options to parents when schools do not meet standards.

While NCLB has produced some positive effects, the bill has not produced enough improvement to reach its goal of all students meeting proficiency standards by 2014 and has numerous flaws that policymakers should address. While talks in Congress have stalled, and national attention surrounding NCLB has taken a back seat to election season, Hurricane Sandy, and the “fiscal cliff,” NCLB reauthorization is sure to be an issue during the Obama Administration's second term.

The bill's eleventh anniversary presents an opportunity to consider what the evidence tells us about how to make NCLB more effective. Should Congress reauthorize NCLB, five potential improvements include:

  1. Address lack of standards comparability across states. Currently, measures of proficiency vary from state to state, so a student deemed proficient in one state could potentially move to another state and no longer be considered proficient. One promising initiative that can help address this problem is the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which proposes a set of reading and math standards that states can adopt on a voluntary basis. At present, all but five states have adopted these standards.
  2. Capture student gains at all points on the test score distribution. NCLB's proficient / not proficient dichotomy has resulted in schools not receiving credit for gains made above or below the proficiency threshold. This provides an incentive for schools to focus on their “bubble kids”—students just below the threshold. Improved measures of growth should capture gains at the low end of the distribution as well as among advanced students.
  3. Expand the set of outcomes we measure beyond reading and math. Student learning in other subjects—including social studies, science, art, and music—is not always evaluated through achievement tests. Similarly, important, high-order skills such as problem solving and teamwork may be underrepresented or excluded.
  4. Keep the classroom in mind when designing tests. Because the content and format of achievement tests has a huge influence over how teachers run their classrooms, it is crucial that we design high-quality tests that measure the range of skills and knowledge we want students to learn.
  5. Flexibility and capacity are key, particularly for struggling schools. In a tight fiscal environment, many school districts lack the capacity—and at times, the political will—to make the changes necessary for real school improvement. A structure that allows for a flexible system of interventions and fosters capacity-building can encourage states and districts to help their most struggling schools, in the most effective way, while accounting for the local context.

This commentary originally appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer on January 14, 2013.