The Timely Death of No Child Left Behind: 2001-2015

This month, we sat shiva for the No Child Left Behind Act, otherwise known as NCLB, that passed away at 3:00 P.M. in Washington, DC on Thursday, December 10th. We do not mourn its loss. Unlike the traditional shiva, we celebrate not its life's achievements, but reflect on its shortcomings.

Though only 13 years of age, NCLB had a long and tragic life. It was of mixed heritage born of an extraordinary marriage of Republicans and Democrats. After years of flailing educational reform, NCLB held the promise of "putting America's schools on a new path."

NCLB touched many in its short life. It infested schools with test-driven demands. Teachers were held accountable as the prime source of failing schools and failing children. Poverty, hunger, and sickness offered no excuses for poor student outcomes. Sanctions replaced praise. Schools that were once trusted as hubs in the community were redefined as dropout factories. Social, emotional, and physical growth were relegated to five minutes on a concrete playground. And art, music, character education, and civics were left behind in favor of a laser focus on reading and math.

We the academicians and scientists who study child learning did not sit passively on the sidelines. One of us, an Assistant Secretary of Education, knew that NCLB was destined to leave every school behind. Government simulations provided proof positive that the new law would not advance the very children it was designed to help. Yet, political will trumped scientific data and the law went forward.

Another of us attended a meeting in June of 2001 where scientists were asked how we could best assess learning outcomes only to find that the real objective was to choose off-the-shelf multiple choice tests that could be administered in classrooms just two months later. Yet another of us watched as teachers were handcuffed by scripted learning, no longer responsive to the questions in children's eyes. If it was Tuesday, children had to learn adjectives even if it was clear that they had never been introduced to nouns.

None of these were intended consequences. No one envisioned that NCLB would be reduced to filling bubbles on a weakly constructed standardized test. Nor had we expected that parents would be sidelined and silenced with respect to their children's education. Who would have guessed that teachers, loved and cherished by their children, but stripped of their autonomy, would flee from their micro-managed classrooms into early retirement? No, NCLB was meant to end "the soft bigotry of low-expectations in our schools."

It is ironic that in this knowledge economy, we have trained students in regurgitation of low-level facts that are better recalled with a hand-held device. Scores on international tests have reached a new low. Scores on the nation's report (NAEP) have declined. In the 13 years of NCLB, we have created a monster bureaucracy to usher through a new generation of students who neither think nor create. Employers are taking note. So too, the military tells us that America's graduates are not prepared to serve.

George Bush was well meaning. He hoped to make education worthy of its children. His dream, however, was not well served.

So this season, we gathered around a bountiful shiva table, with dreams that we can solve one of the most intractable problems of our time. We say kaddish and talk about the NCLB nightmares in the hopes that the Every Student Succeeds Act, recently signed into law, is kinder to teachers and to students.

We are a country built on the frontier of ideas and on cultural pluralism. We are used to generating diverse solutions to pressing problems. The death of NCLB offers us an opportunity to use public education to reclaim that promise.