Congress is taking up a large number of education bills this year. Unfortunately, the issue it is ignoring — as it has for years — is the one that most needs its attention: an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act. It would be an understatement to say that school reform is in a state of disarray because of this legislative inaction.
No Child Left Behind, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2001, focused public attention on how poorly many students were doing in school. At that time, low-performing school districts often took it for granted that close to half their students would drop out; students who couldn't read were routinely promoted from grade to grade until they reached high school barely able to read a Dr. Seuss book. The new law, passed with bipartisan support, made it clear that was not acceptable.
But No Child Left Behind will surely rank as one of the most poorly constructed laws of its time. The remedies it laid out for low academic performance were narrowly drawn, unconscionably rigid and in many ways antithetical to the goal of improving education for the largest number of students. The law ushered in an era of over-reliance on test scores to measure educational quality. At the same time, it was lax about letting states set their own definitions of academic proficiency; as a result, standards varied wildly from state to state, making it much easier for states with too-low targets to meet their goals.