THE BLOG
12/23/2014 02:10 pm ET Updated Feb 21, 2015

An Obituary for an Unattained Education Goal

By 2014, every child should be proficient in reading/English language arts and mathematics.

In so many words, this noble purpose was established in 2002 by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) as the Nation's guiding principle for improving public education. But, within a few days, 2014, the year for its accomplishment, will fade into history together with that goal--unattained.

In January 2002, President George W. Bush signed NCLB into law, which he had proposed a year earlier as his first legislative initiative upon assuming the presidency. The ceremony celebrating the enactment of that law was widely covered in the news. Basking in TV lights, the president was surrounded by key Democratic and Republican members of Congress who had guided Bush's bill through the legislative shoals. Lofty rhetoric was used by the president and others about the centerpiece of that law: every student would be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

In the decade following that event, the news media regularly reported on the progress of that law and the controversies surrounding its implementation. Thousands of local, state and national news stories were written, broadcast, and viewed about the degree of progress being made to reach proficiency. There was something mesmerizing about the promise that every student would successfully be able to read and do math.

Today, that goal of 100% proficiency is slipping away without major attention from national leaders or the news media. Rather, this high-sounding objective is disappearing without a commemorative event, or even much notice from the public. And, the year is ending without every student being proficient in reading and mathematics. The enchantment with that goal has dissipated.

The establishment of this national objective and its demise is a good lesson in the limitations of setting education policies without first assuring that those policies can be realized, or at least that their attainment is within the realm of possibility. Further, research findings should provide evidence that proposed policies will lead to improvement. The 2014 proficiency goal was passed in Congress without either of those essential preconditions.

The No Child Left Behind Act set this goal for public school students "on a wing and a prayer." Good intentions abounded, and stirring speeches were made; but the evidence was lacking that NCLB's approach would lead to the attainment of full proficiency.

NCLB required that states bring students to proficiency in reading and math within twelve years. It also required testing of all students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school to measure whether they were progressing adequately toward proficiency in those two fundamental academic subjects. Penalties were set for schools and school districts that did not show sufficient annual progress.

Despite the preciseness of the goal and compliance process, states had wiggle room. States independently defined what score qualified as "proficient," and used their own tests. Some states had high standards, some low bars, and the others had a mixture. States could also set different twelve year schedules for attaining that goal. Some states required regular yearly increases in numbers of students reaching proficiency, some states delayed major advances to near the end of the decade, and the remainder varied.

Over the years, test scores on the state assessments used to measure progress did increase in most states, and thus more students became proficient. Despite this progress, in 2012 nearly half of American public schools were found to be out of compliance with the law's requirements that students as a whole and students in various subgroups (e.g. Latinos, African-Americans, those from poor families, children with disabilities) met the states' proficiency testing targets.

Half of the country's schools were labeled as "needing improvement" under the terms of NCLB, namely, their students were not on track to attaining the goal of full proficiency. The news media shorthanded this finding into "half of America's schools are failing."

Today, forty-two states have waivers from NCLB's requirements. Several years ago, the Obama administration recognized the reality that this goal was not going to be attained; and since the Congress could not agree on an alternative, the federal Department of Education granted the states permission to test and hold schools accountable in different ways than the original NCLB had done. The 2014 goal of full proficiency was quietly pushed aside through an exchange of paperwork between the states and the federal government.

Why did it come to this? Why didn't students reach proficiency by the end of 2014? Why were some children left behind in contradiction of the title of the national law?

The entire scheme was faulty. NCLB's premise was that major improvement in education would come about through placing pressure on teachers to have students increase their test scores. As a former state governor told me in the 1990s, test-driven reform would be the lever that would improve the system of public education.

NCLB pressured schools without a concomitant effort to prepare and train teachers to bring their students to higher levels of achievement. Great inequities in fiscal resources among schools and districts, and great disparities in the quality of the teaching force among these entities were ignored. The pretense was that all it would take to produce better results was coercion.

In 2015, the Congress and President Obama will address how to extend and amend NCLB. Based on my long experience in this area, I believe the tendency will be to remove some of the worst features of NCLB, and be done with it. That would be an improvement, but not sufficient.

The entire school reform movement based on the use of student test scores as a lever to bring about improvement should be re-thought. It has not worked.

Let 2014 slip away, with that noble but unattained goal. In 2015, let us use experience and research to find a better way to improve the schools. Students, educators, parents, and the country as a whole deserve better.