Both proposals could easily flounder, and senators were already clashing Tuesday over how accountable states should be to the federal government. “It’s far from a slam dunk,” wrote Education Week’s Alyson Klein. The Obama administration said it “can’t support” either of the bills as they stand because they “lack the strong accountability provisions that it is seeking,” according to The New York Times.
Why has No Child Left Behind left such a sour taste in people’s mouths? And how, if at all, would the proposed rewrites make amends?
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, was designed to earmark extra funding for poor students—a program that would give the federal government a much greater role in classrooms. Giving disadvantaged schools an extra boost was certainly a worthy goal; it still is. Unfortunately, “the widespread challenges faced by children from low-income families in America remain extraordinarily difficult to tackle as they continue to struggle with vastly inadequate educational opportunities,” wrote Julian Zelizer, a Princeton history professor, for The Atlantic. The gap in test scores between students from lower- and higher-income families has grown by 40 percent since the 1960s.
Despite its bipartisan roots, No Child Left Behind, Zelizer argued, has done little to reverse those trends. Testing became the centerpiece of education reform, and schools faced harsh sanctions if they didn’t fulfill expectations. Teachers invested more time in test prep and less time in valuable instruction. Schools were shut down were in poor communities. Achievement levels are still greatly uneven.
Here’s a rundown comparing how the current law and proposed legislation (as of Tuesday) address some of the key challenges in American education today:
No Child Left Behind: The law mandates annual testing in math and reading for kids in grades three through eight as well as high school. Schools are expected to show progress in student test scores and face penalties if they don’t.
Every Child Achieves: The law would have the same testing requirements as No Child Left Behind. States would have to make test scores public, including data on how scores break down by race and income.
Student Success: Under this measure, states would be allowed to opt out of federal accountability requirements if they develop their own plans. (Education Week reports that the proposal now includes an amendment that would allow parents to opt their kids out of testing without those zeros counting against schools’ performance rankings.)
No Child Left Behind: The federal government uses test-score benchmarks as the standards against which schools are assessed.
Every Child Achieves: The law would explicitly prohibit the federal government from requiring states use a specific set of standards—i.e., Common Core. However, it would mandate that all states adopt “challenging” math, science, and reading standards that ensure kids are prepared for college or vocational pursuits.