Commentary | Education

What went wrong with No Child Left Behind?

“Who would want to leave any child behind?”

Diane Ravitch says that was the logic that initially led her to support the policies of No Child Left Behind, requiring all public schools to measure student performance through standardized tests.

In the eight years since the act took effect, however, Ravitch said she has come to understand that the policies and the punitive measures put in place for schools failing to meet proficiency requirements were as unrealistic as requiring all cities to become crime-free by a target date, and then shutting down police departments that failed to achieve that impossible goal.

Ravitch, an education historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education in the George H.W. Bush administration, explains in her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, how her thoughts on testing, school choice, and teacher accountability evolved. On March 15, she spoke on a panel at EPI, How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education,  about the damage that has resulted from a heavy focus on standardized tests.

Because of the strong bipartisan desire to improve the country’s educational system, No Child Left Behind won the overwhelming support of Democrat and Republican lawmakers in 2001. But in addition to mandating annual testing in reading and math, the policy contains strong punitive measures that Ravitch now says has left “public education in great peril.” Schools where all students do not meet standards for test scores by 2014 could be closed, and with that deadline fast approaching, it appears that many schools will fall short. Ravitch cited one study projecting that close to 100% of all the elementary schools in California could be deemed failing schools. No Child Left Behind, she says, put in place a set of “totally utopian and unrealistic expectations.”

Nor is the large number of so-called failing schools the only problem. Other panelists  at the March 15 event—Carmel Martin, Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development at the Department of Education;  Bill Galston, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and White House policy advisor on education in the Clinton administration; and Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers—each stressed that education had suffered from a practice of  teaching narrowly to math and reading tests, while neglecting other curricular areas such as the arts, history, science, and physical education. In addition, in an effort to declare more students “proficient” in math and reading, proficiency standards had frequently been watered down.

“I can get a graduation rate of 100% if you put me in charge of a school,” explained Ravitch. “But some of the graduates will be illiterate.”

 Panelists debated the best way to move forward from the current policy but agreed that future policies should focus less on sanctioning poorly performing schools than on rewarding outstanding performance and recognizing that not all schools could be held to the same set of expectations. Schools in communities with high poverty rates, said the panelists agreed, were particularly challenged.

“Any time we alleviate poverty, we will increase the odds of educational improvement,” said Ravitch.