Thirteen years ago, federal lawmakers approved the education reform plan known as No Child Left Behind.
The guiding principle behind No Child Left Behind was that high standards needed to be set for millions of U.S. students, and establishing measurable goals could improve individual outcomes in education. Every student was expected to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, and schools were expected to deliver these results even though there was little federal funding to accompany the mandates.
As we flip the calendar from March to April, it's safe to say that schools from one end of the country to the other have fallen well short of the lofty goals established in No Child Left Behind, and nothing that happens in the nine months that remain in this year will change that.
In fact, many states, Pennsylvania included, have sought and received waivers from the impossible-to-meet goals.
We live in a world where imperfection runs rampant, so it's a little mystifying why lawmakers ever thought that 100 percent proficiency is even possible. One reason is that it's not their job to try to attain the goal, so what's the harm in saddling someone else with the impossible task? Another reason is that, at that time way back in 2001, 2014 probably seemed so far away. Now here we are in 2014 and perfection remains an impossibility.
No Child Left Behind was destined to fail because of its stated goal of having every student be proficient in reading and math. Some students simply aren't going to perform at grade level, not when some of them must head to school each morning worrying about a parent who is sick. Other students live in poverty. Some have parents who are alcoholics or are addicted to drugs. Other boys and girls have learning disabilities that prevent them from performing well on standardized tests. So from the very start, No Child Left Behind was flawed and it remains flawed.
Instead of listening to educators' concerns and making changes, the U.S. Congress has left the law in a weird kind of limbo, with the Obama Administration essentially working around it by offering other education initiatives like Race to the Top.
There are aspects of No Child Left Behind that are good. It encourages school districts to focus on improving on measurable goals. The legislation increased the options that are available to parents of children who are in failing schools, but it's only a small minority of schools that meet the criteria for being a failing school. The legislation also required school districts to provide additional help for special-education students and made schools account for the results.
It's been more than 12 years since No Child Left Behind was signed into law, and students are still being left behind—plenty of them. The reform plan may not deserve an “F”—after all, it did focus educators on attaining measurable goals from one year to the next and some of the provisions are beneficial. But No Child Left Behind doesn't deserve an “A”, either. Pennsylvania's waiver from No Child Left Behind abolished the “making adequate yearly progress” designations for each school building and the state has developed a new accountability system. After more than 12 years, as states take steps to move away from it, maybe all that No Child Left Behind deserves is a grade of incomplete.