No Child Left Behind deserves high marks

Ten years ago, when I was domestic policy adviser, I boarded Air Force One with President George W. Bush for travel to Ohio, Massachusetts and New Hampshire with Senate education leaders Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and House education leaders John Boehner (R-Ohio) and George Miller (D-Calif.). The occasion was the signing into law of the No Child Left Behind Act. 

It was the culmination of a journey that began in Texas with the idea that every child is capable of learning and deserves a quality education, regardless of his or her circumstances. It concluded with the bill-signing with these key legislative leaders who helped translate into law our common vision to end discrimination in education. 

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When Bush began his campaign for the presidency in 1999, he noticed a disturbing trend. Despite progress made by our nation’s disadvantaged students in past decades, that progress had stalled. In some cases, academic gaps were growing again. It was for this reason that he urged our nation to embrace the goal of leaving no child behind. 

The urgency to combat the “soft bigotry of low expectations” for poor and minority children compelled a bipartisan team of policymakers, supported by civil-rights organizations and business groups, to join together and chart a new course. The result of this work upended an education system largely complacent and comfortable in preserving benefits for the “haves” while ignoring the needs of the “have nots.” 

For the first time since the dawn of a limited role in education for the federal government, education policy would be anchored in data and measured for results. And for the privilege of using their money, taxpayers would have an accounting of their investment and know how well each public school is doing. 

And so began a new journey, dedicated to our children and grandchildren, bold in its goal to close our nation’s shameful achievement gap and open the door of opportunity that comes through education. 

While we have a long way to go, tremendous progress has been made since that call to action in 1999. On the long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress, by 2008, African-American and Hispanic 9- and 13-year-olds were performing at least a full grade level ahead in math of where they had been in 1999. The exception was Hispanic 9-year-olds, who were two grades ahead of where they had been. 

In reading, the gains were similar. While Hispanic 13-year-olds maintained their performance, Hispanic 9-year-olds were a grade level and a half ahead of where they were in 1999. African-American 9-year-olds were two grade levels ahead, and African-American 13-year-olds were a grade level ahead. Gains for students with disabilities and English Language Learners in the 2000s have generally been even greater. 

The law’s reasonable requirements, which include state standards and annual assessments in reading and math, the disaggregation of student achievement data and public disclosure of results, have made a lot of adults uncomfortable in and out of the system. And the goal to have students perform on grade level is frankly what any of us wants for our own children and grandchildren. It was the result of measuring that has proved profound: We now know which students are being educated and which are being left behind. 

There are good reasons to update the law after a decade on the books to apply the lessons we have learned. However, there is no excuse to retreat from the fundamental principle of educating all children to read and cipher on grade level. It is morally indefensible for policymakers to arbitrarily designate a percentage of our young people as incapable of learning and subsequently sentence them to a life of poverty. 

Policies and laws often need the weight of time to truly judge their effect. Students and schools have made good progress since NCLB’s enactment, especially for those the law sought most to help: poor, minority, limited English and special education students. 

I am sympathetic to those who want our schools controlled by local folks — I do too, but I also know that taxpayer investments in our schools ought to buy something better for America’s students. Today’s policy debates on whether to abolish the U.S. Department of Education or whether to dramatically increase federal spending are off point. As Bush said in an interview this week, for those who argue against a federal role in education, “it’s more philosophy than actual analysis of how No Child Left Behind works and its effectiveness.” The question we should always ask is “how are our students doing?” 

I have visited many schools across our country over the years and one thing I know is that America’s students and educators are up to the task. Let’s put the needs of America’s students first and leave no child behind. 

Spellings served as secretary of Education in the George W. Bush administration from 2005-2009.