Evening everybody and welcome to In the News.  I’d like to talk today about No Child Left Behind, our nation’s education law.

2012 marks the 10th anniversary of No Child Left Behind, the education law that sought to hold schools more accountable for the education they provide their students.  The law was meant to promote significant improvements in student proficiency, as well as the closing of achievement of gaps between students of different races and socio-economic classes.  The 10 year anniversary is causing many in the education community to look back on the law and measure its level of success.  I’d like to talk briefly about the program now.

No Child left behind was signed into law by President Bush in January of 2002.  The plan instituted several major guidelines for States and their school systems.  Firstly, there were Annual testing requirements.  States were required to begin testing students annually for proficiency in both reading and mathematics.  A sample group of students from each state also had to participate in national assessment testing, to provide a point of comparison for each state.

States were required to bring all students up to a proficient level on state tests.  Now states had the freedom to define their own standard of proficiency, but they were required to bring all students up to that level by 2014.  For years in between, schools were required to show what the law called “Adequate Yearly Progress” (or AYP for short).  If schools couldn’t achieve satisfactory numbers, they were subject to corrective measures.  Now, these measures ranged from developing improvement plans for subjects the school is not teaching well, to giving students the option of transferring to another school, to replacement of staff, to, in extreme cases, the closing of the school altogether.

The plan required that all teachers by the end of 2005-2006 be highly qualified.  Now, each state set its own definition of what “highly qualified” meant, but generally speaking it meant that a teacher was certified and demonstrably proficient in his or her subject matter.  The plan was also expected to divert funds more effectively to poorer school districts within a state.

The main goal of the program was to hold schools more accountable for the education they gave their students.  For too long, it was felt, schools were passing their students through the system, without giving them the skills they needed to succeed at the next level.  And very often this involved the most disadvantaged children.  Children from lower socio-economic classes.  George W. Bush, when pushing for the law, said it would save children who have previously been ignored by the system from what he famously called, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

The plan was heralded as a major step forward in education reform when it was first signed in 2002.  Pres. Bush said when signing the bill, that this would begin a new era and a new time in public education. And that America’s schools would be on a new path of reform and a new path of results.  Proponents said the law’s strict accountability measures were going to be forces of change and transparency.  But in recent years as observers have looked back on the results the law has yielded, No Child Left Behind has become more a source of consternation.  Many critics contend that the plan has actually set education in this country back, and that it has actually done more harm than good.

Critics are pointing out that the law has produced very little real improvement on standardized test scores.  They also claim that one of the law’s main goals, the closing of the achievement gap between different groups of students has also seen little in the way of real progress. 

Another criticism of the law surrounds the AYP, or Adequate Yearly Progress figure for schools.  In the latest report on schools (for the 2010-2011 school year), about 48% of the nation’s schools failed to reach their goals, a number which is up from 38% from the year before.  Critics point to the fact that more and more schools are failing to reach their AYP goals every year.  A trend they say points to the law’s ineffectiveness.

But the biggest criticism aimed at the law is that it contributed to a significant narrowing of instruction in schools.  Critics charge that because the law valued only test scores as the basis of progress, schools became preoccupied with improving those test scores, instead of focusing on improving learning skills in general.  Teachers began drilling students with test taking strategies instead of being concerned with overall learning.  This phenomenon has become known as “teaching to the test.” 

Critics point to the fact that while scores on state administered proficiency tests have increased over the years, scores on the NAEP (the National Assessment of Educational Progress) has stalled.  Now, the NAEP is a standardized test administered by the National Center for Education Statistics within the US Dept. of Education.  It’s the largest nationally representative test for student proficiency.  It’s run for students in grades 4, 8 and 12.

Critics of No Child Left Behind assert that scores on the NAEP have been stagnant over the past 10 years.  They contend that the data shows that improvement rates on the NAEP were more rapid in the years prior to the implementation of No Child Left Behind than they have been since.  The data is leading some critics to call the last 10 years the “Lost Decade of Educational Progress.”

With the 2014 deadline approaching for all students to have reached “proficiency” status, many schools are facing being labeled as “failing” under No Child Left Behind’s requirements.  As a result, many schools are facing the law’s penalties, which as mentioned earlier, range from decreases in funding to closure. 

Last summer Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education, announced that the Obama Administration would create a waiver option for States.  The option would allow states to be freed from under some of No Child Left Behind’s requirements, in exchange for enacting some reforms the Obama Administration would like to see put into effect.  Some of these reforms stem from Pres. Obama’s own proposal for an education reform law called “Race to the Top.”

Race to the Top is a competitive grant program in which States vie for Federal grants by implementing certain education policies.  Just as a side note, we hope to do an episode on Race to the Top in the coming weeks and months and talk a little bit more about that program and its effects.

There have been 2 rounds of waivers so far for No Child Left Behind.  And in total, 36 states have submitted applications.  The administration also announced that there would be a 3rd round of waivers beginning this year in September.

There is no doubt that no child left behind has many shortcomings.  I’m not an educator so I’m probably not in any position of authority to make a definitive judgment on the law, or even if in the final analysis, the law did more harm than good.  But the one fact that can’t be denied is that the law placed emphasis on the underperformance of, and the tremendous achievement gaps in, the country’s school systems.  No law is perfect, and we seem to have gathered plenty of information on what education strategies we should avoid in the future.

But holding schools accountable for the educations they provide our children is now part of the conversation.  If nothing else, No Child Left Behind should be given credit for that.

That’s our show for this evening, we hope you enjoyed it.  And we hope you’ll join us again next time on In The News. Please visit our page at blogtalkradio.com/inthenews for dates and times of our upcoming shows.  Good night everybody.