On Monday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stressed the Obama administration’s continued commitment to the controversial No Child Left Behind Act. Given its questionable success rate, as well as a $23.3 billion federal price tag, the bill—which requires annual student testing in reading comprehension and math every year, with tough consequences for low-performing schools—has long been debated by many teachers, politicians, and parents alike. The No Child Left Behind Act, they argue, sacrifices learning for testing. The general theory: Nervous educators “teach to a test” rather than offering students a broad range of curriculum.
Congress is working to revise the bill, but in the past that’s proven to be a difficult, even fruitless, process. Similar efforts in 2013 ultimately fell short when Congress couldn’t settle on the federal government’s exact role in public education. As a result, No Child Left Behind has stayed the same, despite the fact that it’s been a candidate for re-authorization since 2007.
A 2010 report by the Brookings Institute found that the No Child Left Behind Act "has had a positive effect on elementary student performance in mathematics, particularly at the lower grades."
Duncan expressed concern over whether a Republican-controlled education committee will ever actually update the law. “I believe that we may have fundamental differences with some congressional Republicans about whether or not the quality of education for every child, regardless of where they live, is an essential interest of this nation—or whether it is optional,” Duncan said during Monday’s speech. “This country can't afford to replace 'the fierce urgency of now' with the soft bigotry of 'it's optional.’”
For his part, Duncan insisted that the law be updated—but not scrapped. But 13 years after its enactment, is there any proof that No Child Left Behind actually works?
IN 2009,THE NATIONAL Bureau of Economic Research released a report analyzing the effect of the No Child Left Behind Act on student success. Raking through state-level data of fourth and eighth graders, the authors saw improvements in math scores for both grades, but stagnation when it came to reading. Similarly, a 2010 report by the Brookings Institute found that the No Child Left Behind Act “has had a positive effect on elementary student performance in mathematics, particularly at the lower grades.” More encouraging still, the study noted that traditionally disadvantaged populations appear to benefit most from No Child Left Behind.
But even that hopeful bit of information comes with a caveat. Part of the problem, according to some opponents of the bill, is that there’s no real basis for comparison with these results. Yes, math scores might go up, but if that progress comes at the expense of other, less "core" classes, is that really worth it? Broadly speaking, do we want to live in a world with a one-dimensional education system?
After all, teaching to the test often comes at the expense of not just art classes, but also history, physical education, and even lunch. (That’s especially true in the poorer schools, where extra resources are scarce.) Some of that falls on school administrations, chained to performance-based funding. But sometimes teachers themselves—with a similar fear of testing as a job performance measure—will cut aspects of their curriculum that don’t fit into the federal exams.
One 2008 study by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor Sarah J. McCarthy showed that teachers, especially those at low-income schools, are increasingly foregoing writing instruction in favor of reading comprehension. “Being able to write well can make a student a better reader. But only teaching reading isn’t going to make that student a better writer,” McCarthy said in a press release at the time.
Interestingly, a 2014 analysis disproves the assumption that No Child Left Behind has sapped teachers’ job satisfaction; in fact, “its implementation may have improved their sense of classroom autonomy and administrator support.” There was, however, evidence that No Child Left Behind has diminished cooperation among teachers, and has led to longer working hours.
On Tuesday, Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Senator and chair of the Senate’s education committee, unveiled the latest attempt at legislation to update No Child Left Behind.
"Public perception is that NCLB has increased teacher stress due to accountability pressures, negatively impacting job satisfaction," says Vanderbilt University professor Jason Grissom, one of the paper’s co-authors. "This narrative, which has been driven mostly by anecdotes and studies with limited or non-representative findings, turns out not to be supported by our results."
ON TUESDAY, LAMAR ALEXANDER, the Tennessee senator and chair of the Senate’s education committee, unveiled the latest attempt at legislation to update No Child Left Behind. Alexander’s draft would shift the onus for testing back onto states, letting each individual state choose when and how to evaluate their students—choosing specific grade spans to assess and experimenting with testing options. Alexander's proposal does, it's important to note, offer states the option to basically stick with the current system too.
This isn’t the first time Alexander has lobbied for state-independent testing. In a 2011 op-ed in the New York Times—speaking on a set of similar proposals—the one-time U.S. Education Secretary wrote:
We agree that all states should aim to make their graduates capable of entering higher education or the workforce. But we also believe there are many ways to get there, and states should have the flexibility to find the ones that works best for them.
To be sure, there’s plenty of evidence to support data utilization in education policy. A 2010 report from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics argues that school-level data can be extremely beneficial, and calls for “teams devoted to setting and reviewing learning goals and to organizing the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data.”
Scores of civil rights advocacy groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, have argued in favor of data-collection.
But must that data come from a federally mandated test?