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No Child Left Behind’s lasting legacy

at 05:30 PM ET, 09/22/2011

No Child Left Behind has, in many ways, been left behind. Congress, caught in gridlock, won’t take action to reauthorize the Bush administration’s signature education reform law. States and school officials have rallied against the law and its punitive measures. And Friday, President Obama is expected to announce waivers for some of the law’s most central provisions.


(Jay Paul - FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

The new waivers could, as my colleague Lyndsey Layton put it this morning, wipe some of the law’s “toughest requirements” off the books. Although details won’t become available until Friday, it’s expected that the White House’s plan will allow waivers to the requirement that all students be proficient in math and English by 2014, or their schools face serious sanctions.

But what waivers— or any amount of protest— won’t do, is wipe out the law’s lasting footprint on education policy. Instead, historians see No Child Left Behind as having lasting impact by re-calibrating the federal-state relationship in education funding.

A lot of that has to do with how the Obama administration is expected to structure the waivers. As Layton wrote, the waivers are designed as a quid pro quo. In exchange for relief from penalties for not hitting certain performance benchmarks, “states must adopt changes that could include the expansion of charter schools, linking teacher evaluations to student performance and upgrading academic standards.”

“This isn’t going to be clean slate,” says Jack Jennings, president of the non-partisan Center for Education Policy. “The Secretary has made that clear. They’re willing to listen to complaints about certain provisions, but not the overall structure.”

That’s a big shift from a few decades ago, says Lee W. Anderson, author of “Congress and the Classroom,” which looks at education policy back to the 1960s. Back then, Anderson says, states didn’t expect federal education funds to come with strings attached. No Child Left Behind, however, overhauled those expectations.

“The waivers aren’t an opportunity to get back to the state entitlement mindset,” he says. “That’s certainly been eroded. States might want to get back there, but I think these waivers are a recognition that we’re in an age of accountability, where the federal government expects meaningful results.”

Under NCLB, much of that “accountability”is through standardized tests. The frequent evaluations - and requirements for 100 percent proficiency by 2014 - are among the law’s most fiercely attacked provisions. “It’s led to a narrowing of curriculum and neglect of subjects that aren’t related to the test, things like social studies,” says Jennings, of Center for Education Policy.

But, if history is any lesson, a standardized testing backlash won’t translate into less testing. “Every time there’s been a reaction against tests, the solution has usually been ‘well, we’ll make better tests,’” says William J. Reese, author of “America’s Public Schools: From Common Schools to No Child Left Behind.” “That’s always becomes the dream: it’s not the testing, it’s the specific test. That will probably be a likely remedy.”

Reese recently finished a forthcoming book on the history of standardized testing. Since about the 1890s, he says, the public education system has fiercely debated the role of standardized testing. Most debates usually end in agreement that better tests are needed. “it’d be a mistake to think that the impulse to test is over,” he says. “The zeal behind testing is that, if you can expose all the shortcomings, it will somehow tell us what to do afterwards.”

What has challenged us for over a century now, Reese says, is the last part of that equation: what to do afterwards. It’s true of testing conflicts in the late 1890s, and true of the fights over NCLB today. “When the studies come out and a school didn’t do that much better, we don’t always know what to do,” he says. “Accountability is funny like that.”

So when the waivers are announced, there might be new flexibility under No Child Left Behind. The law and it’s legacy, however, are very much here to stay.

 
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