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No Child Left Behind: An Obituary

LA Johnson NPR

LA Johnson NPR

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote as soon as tomorrow on replacing the nation's big education law, known since 2001 as No Child Left Behind.

And President Obama is expected to sign the new version, ending an era marked by bitter fights between the federal government, states and schools.

So as it dies, we thought an obituary was in order.

Yup, an obituary. Because the law's critics and defenders all agree on one thing: that No Child Left Behind took on a life of its own.

Actually, they agree on one other thing, too: "If No Child Left Behind was a person, he or she should have died a long time ago." That's how the outgoing U.S. Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, puts it. "It's about time to finish it off and to bury it. And to do something much better."

NCLB was expected to expire of old age back in 2007, but Congress couldn't find a replacement. So the law hung on.

While most folks are now happy to see it go, NCLB wasn't always this reviled.

Here's a No Child Left Behind eulogy from Kathryn Matayoshi, the state schools superintendent in Hawaii: "Worked very, very hard. Was often misunderstood. Wanted to do the right thing, but in the end, really didn't get where he wanted to go."

Let's break that down. First, what NCLB got right.

Arne Duncan points out that, before the law required states to test students annually and report the results, "Our nation didn't talk about, you know, how black children were doing versus white children. How Latino children were doing. It didn't talk about achievement gaps. It hid behind averages."

NCLB came in and told schools: No more hiding. You now have to break down your student test scores — to give an honest picture of whether you're serving all kids. And, sure enough, many weren't. Sonja Santelises is the former chief academic officer for the Baltimore schools and now works for The Education Trust, an advocacy group. She says NCLB reminds her of someone many of us will spend time with at the dinner table this holiday season: "You know, the aunt that says all of the hidden stuff that no one else wants to say at the table. And got in our face about it."

That may be uncomfortable, she says, but it was good. So, where did NCLB go bad?

"But that same aunt is just overly simplistic," Santelises explains, "and makes these broad generalizations."

Some of NCLB's mandates were unrealistic: that all kids should be proficient by the year 2014 and that all schools can be fixed using the same small box of tools. Rick Hess studies education at the American Enterprise Institute and says that, when you're trying to help people run really complicated human organizations like schools, "you probably shouldn't try to do it via memos and red tape from 3,000 miles away in Washington."

And so here we are to say goodbye.

Its next of kin, the Every Student Succeeds Act — or ESSA — is ready to take over. The new kid will still be a truth-teller — the testing and student data requirements have survived.

The big difference is that much of the actual work of fixing schools will revert back to states. Does that make ESSA better than NCLB? "Yeah," says Hess, "I think ESSA's the kid who's had a chance to see his old man's failings up close."

NCLB won't be laid to rest until the Senate votes and President Obama makes it official. Then the clock will start on ESSA, to see if its good intentions actually make good policy.

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