Editorial:  Congress’ assignment: school reform. Why not start with No Child Left Behind?

President Obama is seen visiting a school in Maryland. Congress is considering several education bills this year.
(Chip Somodevilla / EPA)

Congress is taking up a large number of education bills this year. Unfortunately, the issue it is ignoring — as it has for years — is the one that most needs its attention: an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act. It would be an understatement to say that school reform is in a state of disarray because of this legislative inaction.

No Child Left Behind, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2001, focused public attention on how poorly many students were doing in school. At that time, low-performing school districts often took it for granted that close to half their students would drop out; students who couldn’t read were routinely promoted from grade to grade until they reached high school barely able to read a Dr. Seuss book. The new law, passed with bipartisan support, made it clear that was not acceptable.

But No Child Left Behind will surely rank as one of the most poorly constructed laws of its time. The remedies it laid out for low academic performance were narrowly drawn, unconscionably rigid and in many ways antithetical to the goal of improving education for the largest number of students. The law ushered in an era of over-


reliance on test scores to measure educational quality. At the same time, it was lax about letting states set their own definitions of academic proficiency; as a result, standards varied wildly from state to state, making it much easier for states with too-low targets to meet their goals.

Now here we are in 2014, the year by which the law mandated that practically all students at all schools must be performing at grade level in their studies. With that impossible deadline to meet a goal that was never realistic — and with Congress getting nowhere on reauthorization of the law — the Obama administration took matters into its own hands and created a system of waivers from the requirements of No Child Left Behind, but only for states that agreed to meet certain conditions.

Overall, the rules for waivers were more sensible than those in the law, but they also reflected the administration’s biases. It was made clear, for instance, that states would be better situated to win a waiver if they adopted the Common Core curriculum standards, and if they made test scores a significant factor in evaluating teacher performance. The latter was an overreach; the government is within its rights to demand higher achievement in exchange for federal money, but how that is accomplished should be left to states, which are constitutionally authorized to run public schools.

Some states, including California, refused to accept the administration’s insistence on using test scores in teacher evaluations, and were denied waivers as a result. The state of Washington agreed to it and received a waiver, but now has been told its waiver is being revoked because it hasn’t followed through on its promise. Other states were warned they might lose their waivers on similar grounds, but in early May, the administration softened its stance.

Meanwhile, there has been a backlash among states that rushed to implement Common Core to obtain waivers. California, for its part, was threatened with loss of federal funding because it was only field-testing the Common Core tests this year and not producing actual test results, even though that was a legitimate and smart way to proceed. The U.S. Department of Education, which was starting to look foolish by cracking down on a state that was embracing Common Core, backed off.

In other words, right now the nation is operating under a hodgepodge of federal rules that seem to change state by state and depending on the political winds. The Obama administration hasn’t done a particularly good job, but the bulk of the blame rests with lawmakers for leaving No Child Left Behind on the books.

School reform shouldn’t be this hard. States should be allowed to set up their own improvement programs, as long as those programs meet certain parameters for ensuring steady progress for a broad spectrum of students, especially disadvantaged and minority students. The measurement of those improvements should include more than test scores. The U.S. government should get out of the business of micromanaging schools, using its authority instead to ensure that it is receiving good value for the dollars it spends on public education.