Washington Post: ‘No Child Left Behind’ has failed

This is an editorial by Lily and Otha Thornton is president of the National Parent Teacher Association, which appeared in the Washington Post

Public education for every child was an American idea, but it has always been a local and state responsibility. Even when Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act 50 years ago, the intended federal role was limited but clear: ensuring equal opportunity.

The act provided federal resources for states to level the playing field between schools in wealthy and poor districts. However, its 2002 reauthorization, which became known as No Child Left Behind, took the law off track by mandating that all students hit arbitrary scores on standardized tests instead of ensuring equal opportunities.


No Child Left Behind has failed. Now we have a chance to fix the law by refocusing on the proper federal role: equal opportunity. To do that, we must change the way we think about accountability.

Under No Child Left Behind, accountability has hinged entirely on standardized test scores, a single number that has been used to determine whether students graduate or teachers keep their jobs. The problem is, a single test score is like a blinking “check engine” light on the dashboard. It can tell us something’s wrong but not how to fix it.

What we need instead is a whole dashboard of indicators that monitor better measures of success for the whole child — a critical, creative mind, a healthy body and an ethical character. And we need indicators of each student’s opportunities to learn — what programs, services and resources are available?

Success should be measured throughout the system — preschool to high school — but a standardized test tells us so little. We want to know which students are succeeding in Advanced Placement and honors programs, where they earn college credit in high school. You can measure that. We want to know which students have certified, experienced teachers and access to the support professionals they need, such as tutors, librarians, school nurses and counselors. We want to know which students have access to arts and athletic programs. Which middle school students are succeeding in science, technology, engineering and math tracks that will get them into advanced high school courses, which will get them into a university. You can measure all that, too.

And we want the data broken down by demographic groups, so we can ensure that all types of students have access to these resources. Without this dashboard of information, how would the public know which children are being shortchanged? How would anything change on the local or state level?

Real equal opportunity, of course, isn’t a “one size fits all” proposition. It means providing every child whatever he or she needs to learn, whether it’s tutoring and mentoring, counseling or other services. If a student comes to school hungry or sick, can we really say that she has an opportunity to learn? Of course not — and we must acknowledge this by seeing each student as a whole human being with individual needs.

We must also recognize that the misuse of test scores has had unintended negative consequences, especially for students at high-poverty schools. In service to high-stakes “test and punish” threats, schools with the most limited resources have been most likely to cut back on history, art, music and physical education, simply because they aren’t covered on standardized tests. Those are the schools where test prep has robbed students of quality one-on-one time with teachers. Teachers have told us that students in their schools have had recess cut back in order to clear more time for test prep, despite abundant research showing that exercise improves learning. Under No Child Left Behind, the testing tail is wagging the dog.

After years of false starts, Congress now seems serious about fixing this law. At a time when many Americans have lost faith in Washington’s ability to solve problems, this is a chance for educators, parents and Congress to work together and ensure equal opportunity for every student. We must seize this moment.



3 Responses to “Washington Post: ‘No Child Left Behind’ has failed”

  1. Andy Goldstein

    Reflections of an Annual Contract Teacher from Palm Beach County (published with permission):

    Are you there District? It’s me, just a teacher…

    This year more than ever there seems to be little time to do the many things that need to be done to support students. In order to be an effective teacher, a HIGHLY effective teacher, you must be able to share between 40% of yourself toward students’ emotions and social needs and 60% toward finding new and creative ways of getting old standards to present as new benchmarks and still keep students engaged enough to surpass all goals. This year for me at least, there seems to be several changes or additions to my equation of teaching and learning. I am attempting to infuse a new curriculum, toward a new state test, with new-aged, social-media students that are the product of entitlement.

    While the equation presented seems challenging to some and maybe not be worthwhile on a teacher’s salary, truth is I live for this job! I live to come to wok daily and see my students. I live to hear the words they have to say and the words that show me who they are in the moment – giving me a glimpse into who they will be in the future right before my very eyes.

    I would not trade the call to teach for another career in the world BUT, I do have to work two or three extra jobs just to support my desire to keep teaching. Sounds crazy? I said I have to work 2-3 more jobs aside from my full time teaching position just to have the opportunity to work with my students each day, hear their words and watch them grow into self-sufficient human beings. Now, let’s add on the job of parenting and taking care of a home to the equation and that is 3-4 jobs on top of my full time teaching position. Is this a complaint? Not in the least! This is just a ventation (not a word) but the best way for me to make light of my frustration.
    Each day I discuss with colleagues whom are in the same boat of LOVING teaching but confused and tired from having to supplement a salary by taking on the other jobs in order to keep teaching. What a world!?

    Instead of just working one job as a full time teacher and getting 7-8 hours of sleep each night, I can only get 3 hours of sleep after taking care of a family and then having to go to my next jobs. Truthfully, I am happy to find supplementary jobs so I can make extra money. Again, this is far from a complaint. Just truth and reality of the average teacher today.

    Truth to the fact that if I and many thousands of other teachers were given the opportunity to just work one job teaching full time without taking on any extra side jobs, our students could get a whole teacher that was not too tired during the day. Our students could get a whole human being who might be able to be more than highly effective as a teacher. Without having to work 3-4 jobs, many teachers could reach a new standard of teaching. A whole teacher could EXCEED highly effective status because sleep could then be a part of the crazy equation we know as the career of teaching. Just think! Whole teachers teaching whole students.

    Are you there District, it’s me, just a teacher….

  2. Lisa Fricke

    The following statement from this article, “Success should be measured throughout the system — preschool to high school — but a standardized test tells us so little.” For Teacher Appreciation week I wanted teachers to know how much they are appreciated, and the empathy I feel because of excessive testing that takes away from teaching and learning. I posted the following on my Facebook page: As the “testing season” winds down, I want to SALUTE TEACHERS for the innumerable things they do for our children. Teaching is challenging, very rewarding, inspiring, and sometimes stressful—I found that the most stressful times came near the end of the year (Jan.-May) during the standardized testing. So much pressure for both the students and the teachers—students’ knowledge cannot be accurately summed up in one high stakes test! If for whatever reason a student does not take the test (extended absence, opting out etc.) the district receives a zero for that student. Talk about stress… I love teaching, and I miss it immensely, but something has to be done about excessive testing—Accountability, YES! Overkill in testing, NO! Let teaching and learning always be the focus. Teachers, thank you for your dedication to the future of our state—kids! Lisa Fricke, Nebraska


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