According to a national report released Thursday, nearly half of America's public schools fell short of federal standards this year—the highest rate of failure since the controversial No Child Left Behind Act established yearly progress and achievement standards in 2001. The latest survey by the Center on Education Policy identified more than 43,000 schools that did not make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) toward the law's requirement that states ensure every student perform at or above grade level by 2014, which most educators believe is an unrealistic, if not impossible, goal.
Because states are allowed to set their own achievement standards under NCLB, the percentage of public schools not making AYP varied wildly from state to state, from about 11 percent in Wisconsin to almost 90 percent in Florida. And part of the increased rate of failure—up 9 percent nationally from 2010—is due to schools that were able to defer mandated increases in achievement until this year. Such discrepancies and loopholes only reinforce the growing consensus among educators and lawmakers that the current version of the law is deficient. “Whether it's 50%, 80% or 100% of schools being incorrectly labeled as failing, one thing is clear: No Child Left Behind is broken,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a statement last week.
Many conservatives will no doubt seize upon this failure as further evidence that federal policy should provide incentives for privatization, rather than an argument for greater funding of public education. But NCLB was doomed to failure from the beginning by Congress and the Bush administration, who chose to critically underfund the program, and by its poor implementation—not the viability of public education or national standards. And NCLB has been hamstrung all along by its failure to require that urban students be allowed to transfer to suburban schools, which has created a shortage of options outside of conservative's prefered solution of private-school vouchers.
“The high failure rate under No Child Left Behind suggests that we need better and more accurate measurements of school success,” argues Century Foundation Fellow and education policy expert Richard Kahlenberg. “But to the extent that the failure rates are a genuine reflection of underlying problems in education, we need to move beyond our attempts to make 'separate but equal' work and seek creative ways for children of all backgrounds to have a chance to go to high quality, economically integrated schools.”
As Kahlenberg writes in Improving On No Child Left Behind: Getting Education Reform Back on Track, a better constructed version of NCLB would be fully funded, provide coherent national standards and reasonable stakes for students and teachers, and provide “a genuine transfer option for low-income students to attend high-quality, middle-class suburban schools.” Having failed to meet any of those criteria, it is not surprising that the current law has achieved so little success. Let's not give up on getting it right the second time around.