Senator Kennedy, No Child Left Behind, and the Dropout Crisis

Democrat Sen. Edward Kennedy co-sponsored the No Child Left Behind legislation, which passed in January 2002 with overwhelming bipartisan support. Almost immediately after the law was enacted, educators, families, and lawmakers across the country experienced an extreme case of buyer's remorse.

President Bush promised a world of funding for America's new public school "gap-closing" initiative, and then promptly failed to put the government money where his mouth was. No Child Left Behind's under-funded mandates left states and schools straitjacketed. However, even if the mandates were fully funded, their promise of "school accountability" turned out to be, in reality, a fearsome, curriculum-distorting monster of high-stakes testing. The lack of funding made a bad program worse.

In August 2005, Connecticut became the first state to sue the federal government over the injustice of No Child Left Behind. In 2007, House education committee chairman George Miller said No Child Left Behind "may be the most tainted brand in America." A scheduled reauthorization last fall never got out of draft form in committee. There is a resounding consensus --this law is not a good solution for schools and children.

So what now? A provision in No Child Left Behind keeps the law in effect until it is reauthorized or scrapped. That could take two or three years.

There is new hope, however, that the drafters of the next iteration of federal education legislation have learned some of the bitter lessons of NCLB. Last week, in a Washington Post essay called "How to Fix 'No Child,'" Senator Kennedy acknowledged that changes are badly needed. He wrote:

The process for rating troubled schools fails to reward incremental progress made by schools struggling to catch up. Its one-size-fits-all approach encourages "teaching to the test" and discourages innovation in the classroom. We need to encourage local decision makers to use a broader array of information, beyond test scores, to determine which schools need small adjustments and which need extensive reforms.

The act doesn't do enough to support teachers as the professionals they are by training and mentoring them and by placing good teachers in the schools that need them most. It fails to deal with the dropout crisis, which puts large numbers of young students beyond the reach of the American dream. It doesn't involve parents enough in helping their children succeed. It falls short in achieving smaller classes so that teachers can give children the one-on-one attention they need.

Most of all, the law fails to supply the essential resources that schools desperately need to improve their performance. We can't achieve progress for all students on the cheap. No child should have to attend crumbling schools or learn from an outdated textbook, regardless of where he or she lives. It's disgraceful that President Bush has failed to include adequate funding for school reform in his education budgets. Struggling schools can do only so much on a tin-cup budget.

Kennedy had been a staunch defender of No Child Left Behind and its push for "accountability." He has previously criticized the Bush administration for under-funding No Child Left Behind, but his new assault here on the law's core elements is incredibly refreshing.

I wish he would go further, though, in discussing the dropout crisis, which of course, is not new. Adolescents leave school for many reasons, but a major one is when they feel that school has nothing to offer them. By pushing our schools to become corporate-modeled testing factories, where success from first grade through high school begins and ends with a test score, NCLB has made schools unwelcoming places for struggling students. These students feel like failures and get sick of playing a testing game that has shamed them so many times. It is politically inconvenient for Washington to recognize that some high schools may tacitly encourage failing students to drop out so that the schools' test scores don't have to include their low marks.

The dropout crisis is not a problem that can be solved in isolation from other problems. "Stay in school" campaigns do not compensate for the underlying failings that begin pushing students away in elementary school. The dropout crisis is just one branch of a system whose roots have been attacked by mass-scale inequity, wrongheaded mandates, and a fundamental view of students as statistics instead of human beings.

Schools can be more inclusive and individually supportive. Many replicable models of successful school communities are currently functioning; reinventing the wheel is not necessary. These successful schools make school a personal and nurturing experience for each child. They generally value small class sizes, opportunities for small-group support, mental health services, adequate resources, well-supported teachers, a diverse curriculum. They have structures in place to accommodate different kinds of learners, something one-size-fits-all standardized testing patently opposes.

Many of Senator Kennedy's recommendations will be welcome changes to the current stranglehold of a well-meaning but ill-conceived federal law. He deserves much credit for evolving his views to accept and adapt to the reality on the ground of American schools. We have to push his colleagues in Washington to stand with him.