For years, there has been talk of leaving the 2002 “No Child Left Behind” law—the first real attempt by the federal government to hold schools accountable for helping all students learn—behind. 2015 is the year it finally happened. But the story of why NCLB ultimately failed may also tell the tale of why the legislation now standing in its stead might, too.
First, though, a quick review of the rise and fall of NCLB: Although “NCLB” began its life as a much-revered, bipartisan effort with something for almost everyone to love, it ended up having something for almost everyone to hate.
NCLB, the most recent version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was preceded by the Improving America’s Schools Act. Under that law, high-quality teaching and learning were not prevalent in all schools, and achievement gaps persisted, leading to agreement that a greater federal role for accountability was necessary—from which NCLB was born. NCLB authorized 45 programs in 10 different areas, but public debate tended to focus on the law’s testing, accountability, and teacher-quality requirements. NCLB required that students be tested in the subjects of English language arts (ELA) and math in grades three through eight and once in high school, and for states to use the results to assess how well schools were meeting “adequate yearly progress” goals for student proficiency in these subjects. Schools that consistently did not meet these goals overall, or for subgroups of students, were targeted for interventions, and eventually for sanctions. Additionally, recognizing the important role teachers play in student learning, the law strove to ensure that every student have a “highly qualified teacher” (HQT), as based on teacher credentials in the grade and subject area taught.