In 2001, in a burst of bipartisanship driven by Sen. Ted Kennedy, Rep. John Boehner and President George W. Bush, Congress passed the most aggressive education reform effort in modern history. Known as No Child Left Behind, it encouraged and rewarded states for raising standards and achieving results for students.
Like most major laws, it wasn’t perfect. Along the way it engendered controversy, and it got caught in the typical crossfire of partisan political debate. But the law put the focus where it was needed—on accountability for all students and supporting low-performing schools.
This week, the Senate will take up a new bipartisan bill to modernize the law to reflect what we’ve learned about the needs of today’s schools, and it will be the closest Congress has gotten to passing an upgrade in more than a decade. As a governor and as a parent, I believe that Washington must seize this opportunity, resolve the few remaining issues and get it done.
NCLB’s focus on ensuring every student is counted was a game-changer. Before the law, too many students could slip through the cracks. NCLB changed that – if a school was struggling, officials needed to step in to improve it. And this change led to gains in achievement across the board – especially for students who had too often been overlooked.
In the three decades pre-NCLB, reading test scores for 9-year-olds inched up by hair’s width – averaging one-tenth of a point per year. Math scores were better but still improved at a barely perceptible two-tenths of a point per year. Since NCLB, reading and math score gains have increased by more than five-fold over the previous era. Nine-year-olds are adding nearly a point a year in reading and math scores, putting them on a trajectory to succeed.
African-American 9-year-olds gained nearly 2 points a year in reading in a post-NCLB world, decreasing the stubborn and persistent gap between those students and their white peers. In my state of Delaware, we’ve gone from less than one-third of 4th graders being proficient or advanced in math to 42%, and we made progress closing our 8th grade reading achievement gap, reducing the difference between average white and black students from 28 points to 21 points. Between 2000 and 2013, our graduation rate improved by 5 points.
We should celebrate this progress, but we should not be satisfied. NCLB had many limitations, including calling for an unrealistic 100% in student proficiency and leaving states with little room to tailor investments and interventions to improve low-performing schools. The Obama administration’s waivers provided some flexibility, but their short timelines give states little ability to plan ahead or set out longer-term, more ambitious goals. If left unchanged, NCLB would label at least half of our 100,000 schools as failing and force states to pursue waivers perpetually into the future, with no guidance about what requirements future administrations might impose. It is very difficult to improve schools when operating on such shifting ground.
The bipartisan Senate bill addresses many of the major problems with NCLB and provides states with both consistent federal guardrails and the flexibility to implement them. It allows states to design accountability systems based on their own circumstances and ensures that academic factors like test scores and graduation rates will still be given substantial weight, while also allowing states to move away from test-only measures to include more holistic determinations of college and career readiness.
But it needs amending on the Senate floor to retain the provisions of NCLB that worked to improve student success: it must do more to require states to identify those schools that are struggling and act meaningfully if their schools aren’t meeting the goals they have set. The answer need not be a federally-mandated menu of specific interventions, but if schools are falling short, states should be held accountable for remedying those problems.
When NCLB was first passed in 2001, it was after three decades of stagnant school performance. Since then, we have broken free and made gains. Having watched this at the state level, it’s clear what is needed to build on this progress. With a few alterations, this bipartisan bill could propel student achievement even further.
Jack Markell is governor of Delaware.