Education of America

Why America overhauled its main education law

CALLING it a “Christmas miracle”, Barack Obama signed the “Every Student Succeeds Act” on December 10th. It has been rare, lately, to have Republicans and Democrats in agreement about anything. But the new law was easily passed with bipartisan support by the Senate a day earlier and overwhelmingly by the House last week. Both parties and both chambers were united on one issue: replacing the once celebrated but now disliked No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a 2002 education bill. “It makes long overdue fixes”, said Mr Obama at the signing ceremony. What was wrong with NCLB and why did Congress and the president want to revise it?

NCLB, which also had bipartisan support, gave the federal government unprecedented sweeping oversight of education. It forced states to set standards and it held states and school districts accountable for meeting them. Pupils had to be tested annually with the goal of raising standards and closing achievement gaps. All pupils had to be proficient in reading and maths by 2014. But the well-intentioned deadline was perhaps unrealistic. It became obvious, despite some early progress, that students were not making the needed strides. The rate of progress was higher before NCLB than afterward. But there were other faults too: good schools were deemed to be failing. Some states set appallingly low standards. Teachers complained about teaching to test. Parents complained about the narrowing of the curriculum. Conservatives, who prefer local control of education, did not like federal interference, especially from Arne Duncan, Mr Obama’s secretary of education. They saw his actions as muscling in on states’ business.

When it became clear that the deadlocked Congress was not going to amend or rewrite NCLB, Mr Duncan excused states from complying. He granted waivers with conditions which many states found problematic. Still, more than 40 states signed up. They had to review teachers and set standards, such as the Common Core, a controversial set of standards that many are abandoning. This all expanded the footprint of the department of education and the secretary.

The new bill shifts power back to the states. They still must test pupils regularly, but each state now sets its own guidelines. Mike Petrilli of the Thomas Fordham Institute, an education think tank, thinks the new bill may save Common Core. “It no longer will be perceived as a federal mandate, ” he says. Federal involvement is reduced to approving states’ accountability plans. It puts clear restraints on what the secretary of education can do. Since only 10% of school funding comes from the federal government, the secretary’s reigned in power feels appropriately proportionate to what the federal government contributes financially, says Mr Petrilli. But the law is only as good as its implementation. Civil rights group are still worried: they fear struggling children will be left behind. They are probably right to be concerned. The new law reauthorises the Elementary and Secondary Education Act signed by Lyndon Johnson in 1965. At the time of the signing, Mr Johnson said that “education is only valid in its passport from poverty.” Five decades on, many children are still waiting for that journey out of poverty.

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