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No Child Left Behind Act in 2018
President Bush promotes his “No Child Left Behind” education agenda during a visit to Kirkpatrick Elementary School in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Sept. 8, 2003. Credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Fifteen years ago, Brenda Cassellius was an assistant principal at a Minneapolis high school when a local reporter asked her about the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the brand-new congressional overhaul of federal education policy.

“This is just the medicine we need,” Cassellius recalls telling the reporter. “Every kid will be counted, and we’ll focus on equity.”

But hindsight is a very different vantage point for Cassellius, who is now Minnesota’s commissioner of education.

“It turned out to be kind of a false promise that we were going to get additional funding, additional resources, support for school improvement,” Cassellius says. “It just kind of turned into, ‘Oh, we’re just going to test kids and put out these failing lists of schools.’ ”

That perception is widely shared (fairly or not), and still colors many people’s understanding of NCLB. Indeed, the new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, has been positioned as a significant upgrade in both policy and practice. But is it possible there’s something worth saving from what many came to see as a deeply flawed federal approach to public schools? How much of No Child Left Behind’s legacy still lingers on in its successor?

To be sure, ongoing ill will over NCLB influenced the bitter, drawn-out negotiations over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which became ESSA (NCLB was also a reauthorization of the 1965 act). Finally completed last December — more than eight years late — ESSA restores more outright control to states for setting expectations for student achievement and for deciding what happens to schools that fall short of those benchmarks. It also seeks to de-emphasize test scores, although students will continue to be tested annually in most grades. And it gives states more leeway in how they identify their lowest-achieving campuses and the remedies they prescribe to help those schools improve.

Civil rights groups and organizations working on behalf of underserved students, however, have been less than enthusiastic. ESSA leaves too much accountability up to the states, they argue, with little history to suggest that it’s warranted.

“The idea now is that states will do what’s right if given more freedom, and I don’t think that’s what played out in the past,” said Chad Aldeman, a policy analyst with Bellwether Education Partners in Washington, D.C. “NCLB tried to put in some strict rules, and states and districts still found a way around them.”

“It’s not like we have a problem identifying the schools that need the most help.”

While NCLB came to be widely disliked, the federal law did have some lasting, positive influences on public education policy, said Aldeman.

For one thing, NCLB forced states to shine a brighter light on their lowest-achieving students and publicly share data on their progress — often for the first time. Before NCLB, states were not required to break out test scores by socio-economic status, ethnicity, English language proficiency or whether students received special education services. That data has become a valuable tool for educators, policy makers and researchers.

NCLB also led states to overhaul another important metric: high school graduation rates. Many states either were not tracking them at all or were using widely disparate formulas that made state-by-state comparisons impossible. In 2005, the nation’s governors signed a bipartisan compact agreeing to use the same formula to calculate how many of their students earned diplomas.

“There is a value in establishing a floor for what all students should be able to do and setting a certain bar for expectations,” Aldeman said. “NCLB deserves credit for starting those conversations.”

Related: The Every Student Succeeds Act includes some new ideas on how to train better teachers

But if those NCLB-related gains orbit in the lower atmosphere of educational improvement, it’s worth noting that the engineers of the original law had aimed for the moon.

Passed in 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act was the centerpiece of President George W. Bush’s education reform policy. It gave states a deadline of the 2013-14 academic year to have 100 percent of their students demonstrating proficiency in reading, writing and math — a noble, if statistically improbable, goal. Schools and districts that failed to make adequate progress on standardized test scores were supposed to get additional support. States were allowed to set their own definitions of proficiency and to decide how quickly schools would have to progress toward that 100 percent goal.

“Did NCLB work?” isn’t a nuanced enough question to cover the full impact of the law, arguably the most aggressive federal intervention in public education in the nation’s history because it tied federal funds to school improvement. But given the law’s emphasis on test scores, it’s fair to consider what happened to those numbers after the law was enacted.

In a recent report, Education Week dug deep into student proficiency rates on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) from 2003 through 2015. Known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” NAEP tests a representative sampling of students in core subjects every two years, and it’s one of the few means of comparing student achievement among states.

Based on those reports, Education Week found a “modest degree of improvement” in academic achievement by fourth- and eighth-graders in reading and math from 2003 to 2015. But scores dipped in almost all grades and subject areas on the 2015 test compared with 2013. Whether that’s an aberration or a trend is something that will require another year of test scores to determine.

Perhaps more troubling results from that 12-year testing window: The achievement gap widened between students from low-income families and their more affluent classmates, and African-American and Latino students continued to lag far behind their white and Asian-American peers on the tests.

In anticipation of those struggles, two key corrective measures were built into NLCB. Students at the lowest-performing schools were supposed to get free transportation to attend a higher-achieving school, and districts had to contract with private tutoring companies to provide what were known as “Supplemental Education Services.” Districts were required to set aside an amount equal to 20 percent of their Title I funding — dollars earmarked for schools serving the largest populations of low-income students — for those programs.

But in the vast majority of states, those corrective measures were never carried out on any meaningful scale. There were many reasons for this, including the fact that in 2012, Arne Duncan, then the education secretary, began doling out comprehensive waivers from the provisions to states that agreed to adopt other accountability reforms, such as changing how teachers are evaluated. Eventually more than 40 states got waivers, and most of those states abandoned the school choice and tutoring initiatives once they were no longer required.

Related: Q&A with Sandy Kress, key architect of No Child Left Behind

Those initiatives had been sparsely implemented, anyway. Three years into the law,  only 17 percent of the nation’s eligible students had actually received tutoring. And just 1 percent of students had transferred to other schools under NCLB’s mandated choice option. Those overall percentages didn’t budge much in subsequent years, although participation did vary widely among states.

Indeed, in 2010-11, participation in school choice ranged from a low of less than 1 percent of eligible students in 20 states to 28 percent in Wyoming. In the same school year, tutoring participation ranged from 1 percent in Kentucky to a high of 41 percent in Michigan.

The low participation rates were not a source of mystery. Some parents preferred to keep their children at neighborhood schools rather than have them take a cross-town bus ride. Some families were not informed about their children’s eligibility, or were notified just days before the school year was to begin. Some districts struggled to find schools that both qualified as “higher-achieving” and had available seats for transfers.

Another factor was the distinct lack of enthusiasm — and in some cases, of political will — among district officials for the school choice provision. Consider a school choice notification letter sent home to parents by Clark County school officials in the nation’s fifth-largest district, covering southern Nevada, in 2003:

Will your child miss friends he/she has made? Will there be a loss of continuity of instruction and/or of the extra programs that your home school has as a result of receiving Title I funds? … How early will your child have to get up to catch the bus? Will your child be safe walking to and from the bus stop? Would there be a transportation problem for you to go to the new school to pick up your child if he/she were to become ill during the school day?

(The letter drew strong criticism and subsequent versions were more even-handed.)

A similar lack of buy-in — coupled with inadequate planning and insufficient resources — plagued NCLB’s tutoring program.

Districts were required to pay for specialized academic support for their lowest-achieving students, beyond the regular school day. State education departments were responsible for vetting and approving local tutoring providers, the majority of which were outside the public sector. Billions of public dollars flowed to private companies, including some operations of questionable quality, set up specifically to take advantage of the federal windfall.

Related: Senate bill proposes a new education technology program in No Child Left Behind, with teacher training a priority

Indeed, a 2013 report from the U.S Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General summarizes “numerous investigations of fraud and corruption” involving the Title 1-funded tutoring programs. The inspector general’s report also makes recommendations to mitigate the risk “in these and other similar programs involving the provision of services by third parties who bill on a per-child basis.”

Some education officials — like those in the Dallas Independent School District — were blunt with the public, calling the tutoring program “a racket,” but making it clear that local schools had no choice but to comply with the federal mandate. And — contrary to NCLB’s concern with accountability — there’s limited evidence of student gains from this tutoring, in part because the private companies providing the services had minimal obligations to track and report their work.

“Tutoring and school choice were defective policies embedded in an even more defective statute,” said Jack Jennings, founder of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

How ESSA incorporates lessons from NCLB

Education researchers and policy analysts agree there are lessons to be learned from No Child Left Behind.

With the passage of ESSA, states are now in the midst of crafting their own new benchmarks and accountability, which, at least on the face of the law, allow greater flexibility than NCLB’s test-heavy benchmarks that engendered so much controversy and resistance. The new systems must include metrics beyond test scores — such as student success rates in advanced coursework. Schools can also be evaluated by softer qualitative measures, such as campus climate, for example.

Some of ESSA’s accountability provisions are similar to what NCLB required. Schools must still test all students annually in grades 3 through 8, and those results must still be made public and broken out by subgroups including race, socio-economic status, English language learners and special education students. The new federal law mandates that schools finishing in the bottom 5 percent of each state’s respective accountability matrix be publicly identified and receive extra help. If any subgroup of at-risk students (each state gets to determine the subgroup’s size) does as poorly as the lowest-scoring school in the state, then they, too, must be helped. These additional requirements, lawmakers say, should serve as “guardrails” to ensure that states don’t shirk on their obligations to their neediest students.

Also, under ESSA, states are explicitly expected to intervene with schools struggling to improve outcomes for kids from low-income households as well as for students of color — both historically underserved groups. And ESSA calls for the federal Department of Education to enforce these provisions. (The accountability regulations— and potential penalties for states that fall short — are still evolving. The DOE released a draft version of its proposed rules late last month.)

Related: The biggest losers in the No Child Left Behind rewrite

But schools that fall short will no longer face an escalating range of federally mandated corrective measures, from loss of funding to being forced to close. (It’s worth noting that the most aggressive of these steps were rarely taken under NCLB in the vast majority of districts and states.)

“States have a period of time to try to get this right; if we don’t see improvements, we will see a heavier federal role come back,” said Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “I will also say though, that it’s really important to think about what a heavier federal role produced for 15 years.”

NCLB’s critics have long cited inadequate planning and funding as causes of the program’s implementation failures — shortfalls that only exacerbated the perception of federal heavy-handedness.

Part of the problem was that under NCLB the responsibility for local implementation rested heavily on district-level administrators, some of whom were resentful of being forced to reallocate badly needed funds to specific federally mandated programs — like school choice and tutoring — said Jennings of the CEP think tank. Compounding the problem were understaffed and underfunded state education departments, designated by the feds as responsible for ensuring that the local districts and schools were meeting the law’s requirements.

There’s no reason to believe states will have an easier time with their new, handcrafted accountability plans, Jennings said.

“If anything there are fewer [state] employees,” Jennings said. But Minnesota Commissioner Cassellius countered that she doesn’t think state education departments will necessarily need to bulk up on staff. In some cases it could mean shifting current employees’ duties from work previously required by NCLB to new, ESSA-aligned efforts. That said, she added, school improvement remains an expensive venture and many states — including hers — are counting on equitable and appropriate federal support for their efforts.

States are certainly gearing up for the challenges ahead. At a recent meeting of the Chief State School Officers group, 48 states — a sizeable turnout, according to executive director Minnich — showed up specifically to discuss potential blueprints for the ESSA-compliant accountability frameworks that various states are already beginning to hash out.

But whatever formula individual states end up approving to identify low-achieving schools — whether it’s test scores, attendance rates or more subtle measures like surveying for student engagement and parental satisfaction — the same campuses typically end up in the bottom 5 percent, according to Minnich.

“It’s not like we have a problem identifying the schools that need the most help,” he said. “Where we have a problem is in political will and action. That’s the side that we have to work on if this law is going to be successful.”

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