We Are Never, Ever, Ever Going Back to NCLB

We’ve now finished Year 3 of the No Child Left Behind “Waiver Era.” Nationwide, 83 percent of students—more than 41 million children—attend schools freed from the most burdensome aspects of NCLB. The federal requirements that became familiar in the education world are no longer:

  • “Adequate Yearly Progress?” Waived.
  • Corrective action” and “restructuring?” Gone and gone.
  • “Supplemental Educational Services,” or free tutoring for students in low-performing schools? Gone.
  • “Highly Qualified Teachers,” otherwise known as “HQT?” Waiver states no longer enforce it.

It’s unlikely that the nation as a whole will ever revert back to NCLB or the rules built into the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). As Taylor Swift might put it, we are never, ever, ever going back to NCLB.

NCLB Is (Mostly) Dead

What comes next? The trend is clear: From NCLB’s strict federal rules to the slightly less-standardized waiver rules to the current congressional proposals for reauthorizing the law, the next federal accountability law will most likely return a substantial amount of discretion to states.

As Kelly Robson, Andy Smarick, and I write in a new Bellwether report, we should be careful not to overcorrect from NCLB’s heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, there are important lessons we should learn from our 50-year history with ESEA:

  • Standards-based education reform has produced positive academic outcomes, especially for our nation’s most underserved children. While there are real challenges with NCLB, we cannot ignore that achievement scores and graduation rates are at all-time highs. Those increases are, in part, a result of school accountability efforts.
  • Under any federal policy, states will vary in their implementation of the law. The implementation of NCLB demonstrated that even with a strong federal role, accountability in theory can be dulled by a number of state-, district-, and school-level policies and practices.
  • State flexibility is essential. While it may be a natural impulse to make accountability rules ever-tighter in response to inaction, that would almost certainly be counterproductive. Instead, states must be empowered to design their own accountability systems, supports, and interventions that fit their unique histories, demographics, traditions, and policies. The federal government should not—and cannot—implement a one-size-fits-all model across such widely varying contexts.

In “Pacts Americana,” we propose a new approach that we call “federal-state performance compacts” that would reflect these lessons. Under such a system, the federal government would work with each state to establish ambitious student performance goals; each state would develop a comprehensive, contextualized plan for reaching those goals; each state with an approved plan would be freed from federal rules on school and district ratings and interventions; and the federal government would monitor state results, extending the length of compacts with those states making progress and revisiting compacts with states where performance lost ground. Ultimately, the federal government would hold states accountable for student outcomes while leaving the details (content standards, assessments, curricula, interventions, and more) to the discretion of state leaders.

A system of performance compacts could offer a new path forward on federal K-12 policy, striking a balance among the urgency to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students, the practicality of preserving state autonomy, and the need to hold states accountable for results.

Read the full report here.