It is hard to believe that it was 14 years ago that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) passed with great fanfare, promising to usher in a new era of student achievement and accountability. At the time, I was a junior staffer working for Congressman Bob Etheridge, who was the only former state school superintendent serving in Congress. Now I am a mom getting ready to send my first kid off to kindergarten.
NCLB has a bit of a mixed history here in North Carolina. Our experience and innovation helped to inspire and inform the law. In 1996, NC public schools implemented the ABCs of Public Education, which involved standardized testing, targeted assistance for struggling schools, and rewards for high-performing schools.
But North Carolina was also among the first states approved for waivers to exempt schools from the most punitive portions of NCLB when President Obama allowed them in 2012.
NCLB marked a dramatic shift in thinking about education policy, attempting to nationalize standards in what had traditionally been a state issue. Additionally, students in low-performing schools were to be given the option of transferring to better schools – a new form of school choice.
Unfortunately, those new standards, accountability, and requirements didn’t come with much new funding, leaving many to argue that NCLB was a massive unfunded mandate on states and local school districts. Excluding child nutrition funds, federal dollars make up only about 8 percent of the public school funding in North Carolina, most targeted toward a specific student population, like low-income or disabled students.
Here in North Carolina, the data is mixed on the results of NCLB, and it is pretty tough to tease out the impact of all the different pieces of education policy. North Carolina’s dropout rate has hit record lows in recent years. After lagging behind the nation for years, mean total SAT scores for North Carolina’s public schools have been improving at a faster rate than those in the nation, and in 2014 they exceeded the nation.
But we know that North Carolina’s low-income schools – the very schools that NCLB was supposed to help the most – continue to struggle. In the state’s new school report cards, released in February, high poverty schools did not fare well. According to NC Policy Watch’s Lindsay Wagner, of the nearly 30 percent of North Carolina’s schools receiving D’s or F’s, almost all of them are designated as high poverty schools with at least half of students receiving free or reduced lunch.
And Judge Howard Manning, who has overseen the state’s commitment to low-income schools since presiding over the Leandro case in 1994, would certainly say that enough has not been done. Just this week, the state school board devised a new advisory board on at-risk students in response to ongoing hearings by Manning.
The most lasting impact of NCLB is a shift toward high-stakes testing that guides – and even dominates – the curriculum. Schools are dissected into data points – historic test scores, student growth and teacher credentials. In North Carolina, we now label schools with a single letter grade, a simple measure that can’t begin to encapsulate the complexity of the business of educating and that can easily erode community support for schools.
And along with that focus on testing and labeling, we have a new desire for school choice – and legislators who support it. The ideas behind NCLB and the notion of fleeing failing schools have helped to spur the voucher movement and the growth in charter schools. While empowering parents with choice has merit, weakening local support for schools and further isolating disadvantaged students are unwanted byproducts.
Congress is finally scheduled to debate reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the name for NCLB before George W. Bush got involved) this week. Here’s hoping the new bill lives up to the promise of providing students with the education they deserve while giving schools with the resources and support they need.
Sara Lang has worked in North Carolina politics at the state, federal, and local levels for more than 15 years. A communications consultant, she lives in Cary with her husband, two young children, and a pampered dog.