The Bloated Rhetoric of No Child Left Behind’s Demise

What replacing the despised law actually means for America’s schools


How does the Every Student Succeeds Act reverse the course of K-12 education in the United States? The headlines say it all: It “Restores Local Education Control.” It “continues a long federal retreat from American classrooms.” It “shifts power to states.” According to a Wall Street Journal editorial, it represents “the largest devolution of federal control to the states in a quarter-century.” The Every Student Succeeds Act, according to The New York Times, represents “the end of an era in which the federal government aggressively policed public school performance, and returning control to states and local districts.” But for all the breathless hype, the legislation seems unlikely to produce many changes that are actually visible on the ground.

The Senate on Wednesday approved the Every Student Succeeds Act, the bill that will reauthorize the nation’s 50-year-old omnibus education law and make the “pretty-much-universally despised” No Child Left Behind obsolete. The legislation, which has already gotten the Obama administration’s tacit approval, is being touted by observers and policymakers from both the right and left as a product of rare bipartisan compromise. “I think this has turned out to be a textbook example of how to deal with a difficult subject,” Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who co-wrote the legislation, told Politico. “When we come to a bipartisan consensus like this, I think the country accepts it a lot better.” Democratic Senator Patty Murray, another architect of the act, tweeted: “It’s not the bill I would have written on my own, it’s not the bill Republicans would have written. That’s compromise.”

The most conspicuous manifestation of that bipartisan give-and-take is what’s being highlighted by news outlets and pundits across the country: Schools will still be held accountable for student performance, but states can determine the nuances of how that will take place. They’ll have to use “college-and-career ready” standards and intervene when those expectations aren’t met, but states will get to design their own standards and intervention protocol. They’ll still be required to administer annual testing in certain grades, ensure at least 95 percent of students participate, and disaggregate data based on students’ race, income, and disability status, but they can use other factors on top of testing to assess student performance, and the details of how the testing happens and how the scores are interpreted are up to states.

The overthrow of No Child Left Behind, which has been up for reauthorization for years, is certainly cause for excitement. The George W. Bush-era law required schools to administer annual tests in certain grades in an effort to identify and elevate the achievement of underperforming youth. It was also loathed for its one-size-fits-all approach to education reform, its promotion of teaching-to-the-test, and its harsh system of sanctions. Republicans grew to despise it for how much it allowed the Department of Education to micromanage states and school districts (especially when Obama rose into office). And given how little power the Every Student Succeeds Act gives to the federal government, it may feel, particularly among those on the right, as if the nation’s schools are about to experience a major makeover—as if the next era of public education will mark a major, much-anticipated divergence from the status quo.

But in reality, schools may not see much on-the-ground change. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia already have waivers from No Child Left Behind’s “most troublesome and restrictive requirements”—flexibility granted several years ago by the Obama administration in exchange for states’ commitment to “setting their own higher, more honest standards for student success.” This means that most of the country’s students have already been learning under a system that eschewed much of No Child Left Behind’s most obvious and onerous aspects—and looks a lot like the system envisioned in Every Student Succeeds. States with waivers were essentially allowed to set their own goals for raising achievement, come up with their own strategies for turning around struggling schools, and design their own methods of measuring student progress.

“I don’t think a parent is going to notice any difference when they take their child to school next year that their school is somehow operating under a new federal law,” said Tamara Hiler, the policy advisor for education at the think tank Third Way, in an email. “The only thing they are likely to notice is that their state or district may spend time reducing the number of tests they have been layering on over the past few years”—a problem that, contrary to belief, wasn’t really a federal one to begin with.

In many ways, what most conservatives seem to be rejoicing about the Every Student Succeeds Act is that it’s replacing Obama’s waiver system. At a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing in early 2013, Alexander was quoted as saying: “This simple waiver authority has turned into a conditional waiver with the [Education] Secretary having more authority to make decisions that in my view should be made locally by state and local governments.” Indeed, some of the most controversial elements being overturned or prohibited by the Every Student Succeeds Act were implemented not under No Child Left Behind but through the waiver system. It was through the waivers (and the Race to the Top grant program) that the Obama administration mandated test-score-based teacher evaluations. And it was through the waivers (and the Race to the Top grant program) that the administration all but required participating states to adopt the Common Core. (The Every Student Succeeds Act makes it clear that the federal government can’t mandate teacher evaluations or standards.)

“What this bill doesn’t change specifically in substance it does change in rhetoric,” Hiler said. “I think if anything, this bill really takes the air out of the political footballs that have been Common Core and overtesting … Hopefully the passage of this new bill will lessen the tension around these issues for the foreseeable future.”

The new law does contain lots of novel elements that are worth highlighting, many of which haven’t gotten as much attention. For example, the law for the first time ever seeks to expand access to preschool by including $250 million in annual funding for early-childhood education. “The fact is, a child’s education begins long before kindergarten, and this bill reflects that,” Kris Perry, the executive director of the First Five Years Fund, said in a statement. It also authorizes funding for a program that will scale up evidence-based strategies for improving student outcomes and other initiatives that promote innovative reform.

But amid all the applause and whoops and back-patting, some experts are warning that the Every Student Succeeds Act has, as The Washington Post put it, “big problems of its own.”

“As far as I can tell, it’s a brilliant piece of political posturing ... that doesn’t seem likely to provide educational opportunity for underserved kids,” wrote Conor Williams, a senior researcher in New America’s education-policy program, in a recent op-ed. “It’s a clear system that serves the political needs of most members of Congress and protects a variety of special interest groups. It combines a thin veneer of civil rights equity with excruciating complexity and uncertain accountability. It takes a relatively simple federal accountability system, removes the teeth, and layers on a bunch of vague responsibilities for states … Just because something is a compromise doesn’t mean that it will do good things for children.”

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