A decade ago when the Bush administration launched the No Child Left Behind law that drew strong bipartisan support from Congress, it carried with it lofty goals.
Schools would be held responsible for educating children. Those that failed at the job would be penalized. By 2014, every child in America would be able to meet standards for reading and math. The law promised accountability and improved performance.
NCLB, in many ways, was a noble experiment, but one that has not worked out as intended. As with any act of Congress, the devil is in the details.
An unintended consequence of NCLB was that many schools changed the way they taught. The change wasn’t always for the better. With ever increasing consequences for failure to perform on standardized tests, learning how to take the tests became a more important subject for instruction than reading, math, history and science.
The act was holding schools accountable, but it didn’t improve the delivery of education in the United States nearly enough to meet the goal of universal math and reading competence with two years still left until the deadline.
On Thursday, the federal government acknowledged as much when it punted, allowing Georgia and nine other states to be excused from the constraints of the law. Another 28 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are expected to follow suit, and New Mexico, which was denied the flexibility Georgia and the others received Thursday, is working with the Obama administration to get approval.
That doesn’t mean Georgia or any other state that receives the exemption is off the hook. But it does mean that standardized test scores won’t be the only measure of student performance and math and reading will no longer have to be the only areas examined.
There is a danger, of course, that states facing budget problems could use this flexibility to their fiscal advantage rather than the benefit of their schoolchildren. That can’t be permitted. Though NCLB is flawed and Congress has been unwilling — perhaps unable — to improve it, it has forced school districts and states to identify and deal with a number of schools that were failing to meet the needs of their students. Georgia and the other exempted states will be required to show plans for getting students ready for college and the work force, set new achievement goals, find and improve schools that are failing their students and reward schools that are performing well.
In the end, Georgia needs a plan that is strong on performance and equally strong on teaching young students how to learn. Merely reciting that one plus one equals two is a great deal different than understanding why one plus one equals two and how that knowledge can be applied to other problems and to everyday life. NCLB has adequately measured the former, but our collective future is dependent on the latter.
— The Albany Herald Editorial Board