Updating No Child Left Behind

Unconscionable gaps between the underserved and all other students

state capitol congress

Image: File

On Monday, July 6, the Obama administration said it cannot support the Senate or House versions of bills to be considered this week to update the No Child Left Behind law. In a call with reporters, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Muñoz spoke about the need for greater accountability measures, but also stressed that accountability must lead to action. Duncan said the country has no children to spare—that all children must receive a quality education that develops their talents. It seems as if a national teaching force of visionaries like the late Marva Collins is needed.

[Related: The Price We’ll Pay for Our Children’s Education: Are There Better Options?]

Muñoz spoke of how since 2000, real progress has been made. In 2000 it was possible for whole populations of students to essentially be eliminated from school data, and for there to be no consequences to schools, districts, or teachers for not reaching them.

Since then, despite the many problems of NCLB, the law did uncover and expose each group of students and how well or how poorly they were being reached in the public schools.

By setting challenging academic standards, erecting sufficient accountability systems, and aiming at equity and opportunity for all students, remarkable progress has been made, Education Secretary Duncan said. According to the White House report, Giving Every Child a Fair Shot, reading and math scores have increased across all student groups, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP; more students are earning college degrees; and black and Hispanic college enrollment is up by more than 1 million students since 2008.

Secretary Duncan said that for the first time ever, every state is trying to address the issue of serving all groups of students. He said there is now “a tremendous sense of urgency,” and that some states had implemented responsible reforms, specifically citing Tennessee, New Mexico, and Minnesota, the latter cutting its gap–one of the largest in the nation–in half. He also emphasized that transparency and accountability are good starting points, but they must lead to actions that actually change the lives of kids.

Still, there is more work to be done. Unconscionable gaps exist between students in the lowest performing 5% of schools and students in all other schools—a gap of 31 percentage points in grade-level proficiency in reading, and 36 percentage points in math. According to the report, more than 1 million children across the country languish in these chronically low-performing schools.

The report also noted that disadvantaged students can also fall behind in well-resourced, higher-performing schools. Such students are often shut out of classes requiring rigorous coursework, such as Advanced Placement classes (the College Board has started a campaign to attract more students of color to AP).

Now that the majority of public school students across the country are students of color, students that have been historically underserved, whose schools have seen chronic disinvestment, NCLB should be replaced with a law that explicitly serves all students and provides more resources to poorer districts rather than to the most affluent. According to the report, that is what the Obama administration would like to see.