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Running Behind

News & Features | April 4, 2011

On March 14, President Obama gave a speech at the Kenmore Middle School of Arlington, Virginia calling on Congress to make sweeping reforms to the No Child Left Behind Act due to its conspicuous failure.

“In the 21st century, it’s not enough to leave no child behind,” President Obama said. “We need to help every child get ahead. We need to get every child on a path to academic excellence.”

In 2001, President Bush announced an act to ameliorate the conditions of public schools nationwide: the No Child Left Behind Act. Not only did the Act pass, but it had bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, passing 384-45 and 91-8 respectively.
But now, nearly 10 years after its passage, it has come to national attention that the bill may not be doing what it originally intended to do. This year, according to the Secretary of Education, more than 80,000 public schools are predicted to fail under the standards set by No Child Left Behind.
Some critics claim that these efforts  were doomed from the start. In an interview over the phone, Tufts University Education Professor Steven Cohen called the Act “ill conceived, poorly written, and horribly executed.” Above all, Cohen questions the Act’s standards of measurement.

“[The No Child Left Behind Act] didn’t lower standards,” he said. “It gave standards a bad name. It made a certain number the goal of education and therefore a whole lot of schools are worried [that they] can be closed down if they don’t meet the number.”

He notes that the focus on getting a good score on a certain test, as opposed to qualitative absorption of the material, is a detriment to our education system.

There are still some benefits to the No Child Left Behind Act, though. The Act’s statistical findings helped point out the failure of some schools and school districts, especially for those of us whose eyes weren’t as focused on American education.

“To me,” Professor Cohen continues, “if you need No Child Left Behind to realize that some schools weren’t doing well, you weren’t looking.”

One main failure of No Child Left Behind may be that it standardized public education assessment without centralizing the standards. Under the Act, each state has been allowed to set its own testing standard. New York’s educational system is different than Florida’s, for instance, and the two states use different tests to achieve their distinctive, state-oriented goals. Furthermore, each district has the power to set educational goals to fill in gaps in state policy. Cohen therefore posits that evaluating according to a single statistical assessment might not yield an accurate portrait of each school system’s educational success.

“In the United States, there are 14,000 education systems just in public schools, one per each district,” Cohen said.

Cohen adds that the effects of No Child Left Behind are evident even at the university level. “I can say on an anecdotal basis that students who come through the public school systems where the choice of exams have become the only way to assess how they’re doing have tough adjustments [to college].”

Due to the obvious failures within the current education system, with a projected 82% of schools missing this year’s target, both President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan are calling on a more than supportive Congress for a major overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act.

President Bush’s Act set a goal for reading and math proficiency and improved testing scores in all schools by 2014, a goal unanimously perceived as unrealistic.

This new system’s standard is far different from that of No Child Left Behind: it aims to have all high school graduates prepared to pursue collegiate degrees by 2020.  Additionally, it would focus resources and funds on 5,000 truly failing schools, while simultaneously pointing to certain measures that could be taken by  districts to improve academic conditions.

As with any piece of legislation, the new education proposal has met its critics. Debt-hawks from the Republican-led House are unwilling to give Secretary Duncan the funds to repair our education system.

But it seems that everyone agrees on several of the most important proposed changes. Replacing the pass-fail system with a system that takes a more individual stance on education and assures students’ academic growth is a top priority. By judging schools not on testing scores but on graduation rates, Duncan and Obama may be able to rally the Republican-led House to support future reforms.