Congress is finally grappling with which parts of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) ought to be repealed or retained. Various officials, and the president who must sign the final agreement, have different lists. After the squabbling, a shadow of a national school improvement policy will remain with nothing comparable taking its place.

Seven years ago, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the basic federal law, expired. ESEA is popularly known today as NCLB, the controversial 2002 ESEA amendments. By providing annual funding, Congress and the president put NCLB/ESEA on artificial resuscitation, hoping for congressional re-writing. During those years, the Congress could not reach agreement on changing the law, and thus it languished despite pleas from educators that it was unworkable.

To provide temporary relief, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan waived NCLB’s worst provisions. That action in itself was controversial since Congress did not like the Department of Education setting policy that the legislators themselves were incapable of establishing.

Now Congress is finally moving, thanks to Senator Lamar Alexander and Congressman John Kline, the chairs of the Senate and House education committees. The Senate even offers hopes of bipartisan agreement, seemingly impossible in the more ideological House.

That is all good, but must be put into perspective. Unfortunately, only minor relief — and no real help — will come to schools from this legislation. Afterwards, educators will face the same set of problems they have had for years without being provided the tools they need to deal with them.

Since its inception thirteen years ago, the crux of NCLB has been to force teachers to get higher student test scores through a set of deadlines, schedules to raise scores, and penalties if unsuccessful. In Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools (Harvard Education Press), my analysis of state and national test results concludes that this policy has failed — no significant increase in student test scores has occurred. In fact, a long-term increase in national test scores lost steam during the NCLB era.

After adopting legislation to sweep away NCLB’s bad policy, the harder issue will be what should replace those provisions to bring about real, comprehensive improvement in American public schools?

School improvement is necessary, but not for reasons commonly assumed. Contrary to popular opinion, the country’s schools are doing a decent job of educating most students.

An example is that high school graduation rates have risen to a peak, despite changes in student demographics making education more challenging than before. The majority of students come from poor families, and many immigrant students need to learn English. Furthermore, teenagers are the most stressed of all age cohorts.

These challenges face teachers every day, and they cope. Taking a long view, from the early 1970s, white, Black, and Hispanic students improved their performance on the longitudinal National Assessment of Educational Progress, until recently.

The other good long term news is that Black and Hispanic students, who usually have much lower test scores than white students, are making greater long-term progress than whites — shrinking the achievement gap between whites and the other two groups. That success is important because “minority” students will soon be the majority.

The downside is that NCLB seems to have halted that long-term progress. Furthermore, in considering indicators other than test scores, warning signs appear for American schools.

In 1995, the U.S. was out ranked by only one other country in higher education graduation rates, but by 2010 was 13th. America did not do worse; rather, other countries improved their performance by taking education more seriously than us.

The U.S. needs a long term policy that will enable states and local school districts to educate more children to higher levels of achievement. The congressional rhetoric surrounding this clean-up job of NCLB is that the states and local districts need to be freed from federal requirements because they know what to do in education and will be able to do it on their own.

That idea is simplistic and even dangerous for the future economic and social well-being of the country. Local control of education has been tried before and found wanting.

Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, American business leaders became aware of other countries’ efforts to improve their schooling to compete for jobs. State governors, legislatures, and local school boards responded in an effort to raise the level of education. But, they found that they could not do it alone.

From the early 1990s, Presidents George W. H. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama responded. Unfortunately, George W. Bush’s NCLB was a wrong turn. That mistake, however, does not remove the necessity to have a national approach to help the states and local school districts to improve education.

If there is not national and state leadership, everything goes back to what it was before the 1990s: some school districts will do well, some will not, and many will just manage. Frequently, the difference is tied to the district’s income level or property wealth.

As I lay out in my book, a new national policy must aim directly at improving classroom teaching and learning. Research shows that improvement comes when more of the “best and brightest” college students go into teaching, and are retained through better pay and working conditions. Students also need to be better prepared for school though high quality preschool programs. Curriculum must be more demanding, and a fair amount of money should support every student regardless of the property wealth of school districts.

In carrying out those policies, the state and federal governments must work together and not be adversaries. Federal compulsion will not bring about better schools in a country that has a two century history of local control.

After the mop-up of NCLB’s mess, real assistance ought to be provided to help American schools to do better. At our peril do we leave the urgent task of school improvement un-done. The world is in motion, and we had better get moving too.


This article first appeared as a blog by Jack Jennings in the Huffington Post of April 15, 2015.