Education law’s promise falls short after 10 years


He was able to get fellow Republicans such as Boehner, the current House speaker, and Democratic leaders on education such as Kennedy, who died in 2009, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., to join him. The mandate was that all students read and perform math on grade level by 2014.

“No longer is it acceptable to hide poor performance. No longer is it acceptable to keep results from parents,” Bush said when he signed the legislation. “We’re never going to give up on a school that’s performing poorly; that when we find poor performance, a school will be given time and incentives and resources to correct their problems.”

The law requires annual testing. Districts must keep and publish data showing how subgroups of students perform. Schools that don’t meet requirements for two years or longer face increasingly tough consequences, from busing children to higher performing schools to offering tutoring and replacing staff.

The test results were eye-opening, recalled Miller, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

“People were stunned because they were always led to believe that things were going fine in this particular school. And the fact of the matter was, for huge numbers of students that was not the case,” Miller said. “That led to a lot of anger, disappointment. That led to embarrassment. In many instances, the schools were being held out as exceeding in their mission, when it fact they were failing many, many of the children in those schools.”

Under the law, watching movies and assigning irrelevant or no homework was no longer acceptable because suddenly someone was paying attention, said Charles Barone, a former aide to Miller who is director of federal policy with Democrats for Education Reform.

In low-performing urban schools, where teachers and principals once might have thrown up their hands and not known what to do, there was a new attitude along the lines of “we might not know what to do, but we’ve got to do something,” said Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow in education at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.

Both spoke at a recent forum on the law at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

But many teachers and principals started to believe they were being judged on factors out of their control and in ways that were unfair.

Jennifer Ochoa, an eighth-grade literacy teacher in New York who works with low-performing students, said the law has hurt morale among educators as well as students, who feel they have to do well on a standardized test or are failures, no matter how much progress they make.

“Afterward, it didn’t matter how far you came if you didn’t make this outside goal,” Ochoa said. “We started talking about kids in very different ways. We started talking about kids in statistical ways instead of human being terms.”

How successful the law has been academically remains under debate.

Scores on a national assessment show significant gains in math among the fourth- and eighth-graders, with Hispanic and African-American fourth-graders performing approximately two grade levels higher today than when the law was passed, said Mark Schneider, the former U.S. commissioner of education statistics who now serves as vice president at the American Institutes for Research.

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