While channel surfing on Thanksgiving morning, I found a school board association meeting where a famous prof was railing on standards and testing with lots of applause from the audience (in a state contemplating delaying college-ready math and science standards until 2015).  I agreed with many of his assertions like “America is still best at encouraging differences and entrepreneurship” and “we want to teach everything.”  He went to deride standards, testing and a system where everything was “reduced to a single number.”  Since lots of my friends are in his camp and want to pitch No Child Left Behind and add more services, it reminded me of why we have NCLB and what the new version should look like.

The primary reason we have a federal law like NCLB is that school boards (and state boards) allowed generations of chronic failure.  They cut bad employment deals and asked for more money when things didn’t go well.  Teachers that could went to the suburbs.  Most low income and minority kids were getting left behind.  Anyone committed to equity could see things had to change.

NCLB reflected a consensus that 1) measurement and transparency would help us understand the problem, 2) that a basic template for school accountability would ensure that things would get better for underserved students, and 3) the federal government should play a bigger role in ensuring equity and excellence.

There were a bunch of technical problems with the bill in 2001 and they never got fixed.  But the biggest problem is that 8 years later states and school boards have continued to allow chronic failure—they basically ignored the federal demands to intervene.  Don’t get me wrong, none of this is easy; employment contracts are hard to change and the most difficult thing for a leadership group to do is close a struggling school.  But our public delivery system is systematically cheating low income and minority students and just throwing out standards and testing will only make things less equitable.

I’m a signatory to the Education Equality Project because I believe that teacher effectiveness, strong accountability, and public school choice are the three pillars of the good school promise—that every student in America deserves a good teacher and every family deserves access to a good school.

Nearly all states have adopted a common set of standards.  This (and $350 million from the Department of Education) allows us to develop a new generation of online tests that will provide better, faster and cheaper results.

If we’re really serious about access to a quality college prep education, the next version of NCLB will encourage online learning and a new student support compact that extends learning and meets individual student needs.

I’m thankful that we have the most talented, most aggressive and most well funded Department of Education ever.  But it really comes down to you and me and the extent to which we take the ‘good school promise’ seriously and whether we demand the same of our elected officials.

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Tom Vander Ark is author of Difference Making at the Heart of Learning, The Power of Place, Better Together, Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and serves on the boards of Education Board Partners, 4.0 Schools, Digital Learning Institute, Latinx Education Collaborative, Mastery Transcript Consortium and eduInnovation. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.


  1. The “technical problem” of 100% proficiency by 2014 demonstrated to school personnel and school boards that NCLB was designed to destroy the public school systems. Why would they comply? Even the best school will not achieve that “target.”

    • No question there were lots of technical problems with NCLB. It should have been amended 2-3 times by now (around goal, growth models, intervention steps, etc) but it provided a useful common framework for school accountability and made an attempt at identifying and addressing chronic failure.

  2. Oh, I agree. But the 100% requirement and lack of amendment convinced most teachers and administrators I know that the real goal was not to help, but to destroy. Until it’s amended, that belief will not change.

    • Fair enough. Call me naive, but I think it was a an example of policy makers rallying around an important goal (lead by Ted Kennedy) and no one saying “wait, I appreciate the vision but this really isn’t practical”.


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