What else – and whom else – will we leave behind?

Last night I posted Rick Hess’s account of how No Child Left Behind managed to anger and disappoint education reformers of almost every stripe. This morning I’d like to suggest that this consensus in favor of scuttling NCLB also poses a threat to education reform.

Okay, I’ve donned my armor. So now I’ll say it. NCLB did a lot of good. Specifically, the law generated and also publicized a great deal of data not only about student performance, but also about “disaggregated” student performance. In plain English, the law forced schools to reveal just how badly some groups of students were lagging behind.

In Utah, where I taught during the stormiest NCLB years, I watched the new law collide with a long and often justified tradition of mistrusting federal government intervention.

But some of the nerves it jangled, frankly, deserved the hit.

I’ve told this story on my blog before, but it bears repeating in this context. Several years ago I attended a Utah State Office of Education seminar for social studies teachers. During one of the breaks the assembled teachers indulged in the usual grumbling about NCLB. A young teacher from a rural southern Utah town (I won’t identify the town or the teacher) blurted out: “They don’t understand.  You just can’t teach the kids from the rez.”

I don’t want to underestimate the challenges of helping Native American students succeed . . . but I was still appalled at her willingness to write off some of the kids who sat in her own classroom.

And I’m appalled still that the Obama administration initially allowed Virginia a NCLB waiver permitting different targets for minority kids. As Michael Gerson writes in today’s Washington Post,

The commonwealth is one of those states granted a broad exemption by the Education Department from No Child Left Behind’s “unrealistic” requirement that all schools dramatically improve educational performance for every ethnic group. Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction pronounced this change “a long time coming and very much appreciated.” The state’s replacement targets, in the manner of such documents, were expressed in educational jargon so thick that few understood them. But eventually it came out that Virginia was codifying the goal of having 57 percent of African American students proficient in math by 2017, compared to 78 percent of white students. (Currently, 52 percent of black students in Virginia are proficient.) It is an educational objective so “realistic” that it is difficult to distinguish from racism. The Virginia Legislative Black Caucuscalled these new standards “insulting and narrow-minded,” involving the categorization of children “in a way that harkens back to Virginia’s inglorious past.”

Once exposed, both Virginia and the Education Department were forced to backtrack. A do-over is in the works. But this is the general direction of “flexibility” in No Child Left Behind waivers, which now cover most of the states. Few have been as blatant and controversial as Virginia’s. But most states have adopted new expectations that are lower, sketchier, less binding and less connected to real accountability. Much of the American educational system — enabled by the Education Department — is in the process of backing down from the highest goals for minority children.


I’ve talked before about how Utah lags behind most states in closing the gap between disadvantaged students and the middle class majority: http://educatingourselves.blogs.deseretnews.com/2011/08/06/good-news-on-the-education-front-except-in-utah/

Let’s make sure that resentment at federal intrusion isn’t disguising a reluctance to face, and address, these unpleasant truths.


  1. Jeffery Hosten

    Hear hear! I don’t like a lot of NCLB, but I also think that if we want to get serious about closing the achievement gap, we have to take a hard look at the failings of our system and see what we are going to do to fix them.

  2. Cleve

    With half our people on welfare, it is obvious NCLB hasn’t worked. Can’t spin that. Standardized testing, cooperative learning, etc has been a dismal failure.

    Truth be known, we could educate our people with half the funding, and with much better results. Bad teachers are not the problem.

  3. Kathianne

    The concept of NCLB was good, the execution was very bad. What seems to be coming forward regarding ‘waivers’ isn’t hopeful. It seems to me that educators finding where each student ‘is’ at the beginning of the year and making targets for where they should be at the end of the first semester; mid-second semester; and end of the year makes for more realistic and achievable goals.

    This is especially true when the students are each consulted and made aware of the expectations of improvement. I would strongly suggest that in primary and middle school either bulletin boards or individual awards for those that meet and those that exceed their own targets.

    Not that long ago the education community was full of ‘giving’ our students self-esteem. That was laughable from the onset, as one cannot give self-esteem, it’s earned and recognized by the individual. How? By success. Set realistic goals, sometimes the ability to get on the right trajectory will provide the student with the confidence to take it beyond where an adult might have thought.

  4. Carolyn Sharette

    Another great blog Mary. I was very excited at the beginning of NCLB, and I still believe the basic tenets that comprise the law are sound. Your article outlined what those tenets were and I think my favorites are: we must assess students and report the results to their parents specifically and generally to the public, we must apply scientific research standards to education, and we must close schools that persistently fail to teach students and re-open them with new management and proven programs.

    I suspect that the new ESEA waiver and all the change associated with the Common Core Standards will obscure for several years the worthy, and vital, goal of NCLB – to bring all students to proficiency in reading and math.

    I am frustrated that it required the federal government to get us to use research-based programs in the schools. I am frustrated that teachers do not feel empowered to make the necessary changes in their schools in order to have more success. The push for the changes embodied in NCLB SHOULD be coming from the teachers – why is it that they are often the ones most against those changes? I’d love to see a future post on why teachers seldom demand that their schools are successful or rarely play a primary role in ensuring that success. I love the new movie “Won’t Back Down” because it highlights a teacher who did just that. I hope it becomes a nationwide movement – teachers fixing schools – such a great solution!

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