‘No Child’ still embodies good policy

In 2002, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was signed into law and became a trademark for education reform. Today, numerous proposals have emerged to change the name, calling NCLB a toxic brand, and it is now fashionable to return to the generic title, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). However, what these proposals have forgotten is that the law was named to describe the policy it embodied.

Without a doubt, NCLB has been a game changer in American education. Through the law’s requirement of core standards and accountability, we have gained an understanding of our education system and the results it provides for all students. We now know which students are on grade level and which are not. We know that about 2,000 high schools account for more than half of our nation’s dropouts. We provide school choice and tutoring to students in low-performing schools, and we are seeing dramatic improvement for the kids whose underachievement had been masked and ignored for years. 

According to our Nation’s Report Card, from 2000 to 2009 math and reading scores grew remarkably for fourth grade students with disabilities. This equates to an improvement of about two grade levels. Nine year-old Hispanic students increased their math scores and raised two grade levels from 1999 to 2008. Nine year-old African Americans made a thirteen point gain in math scores from 1999 to 2008, the largest jump in history. These scores demonstrate a major civil rights achievement — NCLB is working.

But as members of Congress know best, no law is ever perfect.  Passage is just the beginning. We gain experience with implementation, and reauthorization provides us the opportunity to take important lessons learned and affirm the core principles that have brought us this far. 

Before President Bush left office, administrative changes to NCLB were put in place to acknowledge the lessons we were learning along the way. As the U.S. Secretary of Education, I developed pilot programs around using annual growth of student progress and a more differentiated approach to sanctions and consequences that distinguishes chronically underperforming schools from those barely missing annual targets.

Now, fifteen states are using the growth model approach and nine states are working at more serious reform strategies for our worst schools. I am pleased the Obama administration’s education blueprint embraces both these notions, and they should be included in a new law. The administration’s blueprint rightly puts an intense focus on the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools that have failed our kids for far too long. 

However, unfortunately, the administration’s plan also takes us backward by loosening or removing accountability for the vast majority of American schools. Accountability for all students is the linchpin of education reform, and we cannot afford to retreat on our progress. We must not change the features of the law that provide the impetus and urgency to meet the needs of every child in every school in this country. It is imperative we continue to work toward our goal of grade-level proficiency for all students by 2014. We can also aspire to college and career readiness by 2020, but we can’t lose sight that the first goal — getting students on grade level — is a prerequisite for the second. 

We must also not renege on our promise to provide options to parents whose kids are trapped in underperforming schools. School choice and free tutoring are available to millions of American students under NCLB. Removing these options for kids in struggling schools, as recent proposals have suggested, will return them to a time when they had no control over their educational lot in life.

While we have seen student achievement gains under NCLB in elementary and middle school, we have not seen gains in our high schools. We must reauthorize a stronger law that holds all schools accountable, including our high schools; accurately measures graduation rates; and increases rigor to ensure students are prepared for college, the workforce and life.

During my time in office, I frequently asked parents when they wanted their child to perform on grade level, and I never met a parent, myself included, who said they did not want their child on grade level immediately. NCLB gave schools twelve years to meet the modest goal of grade level achievement, and we are still woefully short of meeting parents’ expectations. 

While reauthorization of a good, strong law is desirable, much is at risk if haste and status quo interests provide an opportunity to retreat from accountability. Now, we must redouble our efforts to get students on grade level, out of high school, prepared for college and life, and close the achievement gap. If we choose to retreat from these commitments, then we should change the name of the law. 

Margaret Spellings served as Education Secretary in the Bush Administration from 2005 to ‘09.  She is president and CEO of Margaret Spellings and Company and a leading national expert on public policy. Spellings also serves as a senior advisor to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and as executive vice president of the National Chamber Foundation, the Chamber’s public policy think tank.