Economist Milton Friedman once said that “one of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” And by that measure No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—President George W. Bush’s attempt to bring objective standards to K-12 education, has been a disappointment.
There is no doubt that President Bush’s intentions were pure.
The story of children being just shuffled through the system is one of the saddest stories of America. Let’s just move them through. It’s so much easier to move a child through than trying to figure out how to solve a child’s problems,” Bush said upon signing the bill. “The first step to making sure that a child is not shuffled through is to test that child as to whether or not he or she can read and write, or add and subtract.”
The simple goal was accountability. To prevent systems from hiding low performing schools, to prevent schools from hiding low performing teachers, and to prevent teachers from hiding low performing students. Information in this case was supposed to be power. And that power was supposed to be used by school districts to improve their performance and by parents to pursue educational options that worked best for their child.
Sadly, it didn’t work out like that. Whereas No Child Left Behind envisioned giving power to the states by requiring them to design accountability systems to meet proficiency on state-administered standardized tests, in reality it centralized power in the federal government. It wrested autonomy from schools by giving bureaucrats the power to set accountability standards and it gave the Obama Administration the negotiating leverage to further micromanage education policy by selectively granting “waivers” from impossible-to-meet NCLB standards…so long as the states agreed to certain conditions.
Republicans have long seen the need to course correct and chart a middle path between respecting local control of schools and demanding accountability for academic achievement. It’s been a long, drawn-out battle, but Congressional Republicans were finally able to thread the needle last week, passing the Every Student Succeeds Act, which will replace No Child Left Behind.
Under the bill, states will continue to test students annually in reading and math, which are critical to revealing achievement gaps and low-performing schools, but it would return power to states to determine guidelines for school quality and how to improve schools that don’t make the grade. The bill also requires states to produce plans to rehabilitate the bottom 5 percent of their schools and “drop out factories,” with graduation rates below 67 percent. In return for that work, the bill consolidates the bureaucratic maze of overlapping categorical grants and gives states increased funding flexibility.
“This is the biggest rewrite of our education laws in 25 years,” Speaker Paul Ryan said to mark the bill’s passage. “This shows what we can do when both parties work together. With this bill, we are sending power back to the people. We’re saying no more Washington-mandated interventions.”
Senator Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Education Committee, had similar sentiments, arguing that the bill would allow the states to return to their roles as laboratories of democracy.
“Basically, we’re back to an era that encourages local and state innovation rather than Washington telling you what to do,” Alexander said.
It’s a win for children, who will be free to learn more organically. It’s a win for teachers, who can stop “teaching towards a test,” and unleash their creativity. It’s a win for school districts, who can figure out bottom-up ways to deal with low-performing schools. And it’s a win for governors and state legislators who have better tools to deal with problems in their states.
But perhaps the biggest winner is fans of progress. In just the last few weeks the Republican majority has been able to advance major bipartisan deals with highway and education funding, two subjects that nearly everyone agreed needed reform, but also subjects that invite great partisan acrimony. This is what governance looks like. Hopefully voters are taking note.