One thing policy makers can agree on: No Child Left Behind (NCLB) needs to change. President Obama is calling for major reforms. The question is, what’s going to be done?

In 2001, President George W. Bush enacted the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 to reform and revitalize the education system. NCLB enjoyed support from both Democrats and Republicans and was implemented through the nation’s public schools. The main criterion for education reform under NCLB was two-part: setting high standards and establishing measurable goals by which schools (and the states they belonged to) would be assessed for future funding. There is no set national standard for achievement. These new standards would be established by the states autonomously.

In its efforts to measure the performance of each school and the individual achievements, NCLB has met both success and challenges. Some of the most visible results are:

  • Standardized tests are conducted at all schools receiving federal funding
  • Teachers, administrators are held accountable for their performance based on the achievement of the students
  • Improved test scores for reading and math (The Department of Education points to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results, released in July 2005, showing improved student achievement in reading and math: (2006) No Child Left Behind Act Is Working, Department of Education
NCLB’s challenges include:
  • Criticism that teachers are teaching to the test instead of being able to focus on comprehension and a broader non-Math and English-focused curriculum
  • The focus on math and reading takes away from the other subjects such as, art, history
  • Standards are punitive for children who learn differently, leaving disadvantaged children behind
  • No concerted effort has been made to provide the support both students and teachers need to educate to the highest possible degree.

Education experts have long called for reforms to the education system. Among them is Linda Darling-Hammond, Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University. Her most recent book The Flat World and Education: How America's Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future  looks at the course of education in the U.S. and gives readers a view into where it is going and where it should go. She recently served in President Obama's education policy transition team.

Dr. Darling-Hammond’s assessment of the gap between U.S. school students and those from other countries in mathematics and graduating percentage (75% in the U.S. versus 95% elsewhere) puts the focus on some issues:

“Most high-achieving countries not only provide high-quality universal preschool and healthcare for children; they also fund their schools centrally and equally, with additional funds going to the neediest schools. Furthermore, they support a better-prepared teaching force—funding competitive salaries and high-quality teacher education, mentoring and ongoing professional development for all teachers. NCLB's answer to the problem of preparing teachers for the increasingly challenging job they face has been to call for alternative routes that often reduce training for the teachers of the poor.

“Finally, high-achieving nations focus their curriculums on critical thinking and problem solving, using exams that require students to conduct research and scientific investigations, solve complex real-world problems and defend their ideas orally and in writing.”

How does this translate into what the education reform could look like? Some of the reforms planned for No Child Left Behind include these efforts outlined by President Obama:
  • Zero to Five Plan—fund early childcare and education in preparation for kindergarten
  • Expand Early Head Start and Head Start
  • Provide affordable, high-quality child care
  • Support high-quality schools and close low-performing charter schools
  • Make math and science education a national priority
  • Address the high-school dropout crisis
  • Expand high-quality afterschool opportunities
  • Support English language learners
  • Focus efforts on teachers:
    • Recruit and provide education scholarships
    • Prepare teachers through training and support
    • Improve faculty retention through mentoring programs
    • Reward high-achieving teachers through structured incentive programs

NCLB expired in 2007 and has not been reauthorized. With the tough requirements of NCLB, some states are looking at gloomy consequences in 2014 if they do not pass the standards set by the law.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has acknowledged, “There is no magic bullet for fixing education, and the best ideas will always come from the local level, where hardworking men and women in our schools are doing the hard work every day to educate our children.”

He went on to definitively state that the Department of Education will move forward to help ease the efforts of states as they try to meet the requirements of the law. “With the new school year fast approaching and still no bill to reform NCLB, it’s time to create a process for states to gain flexibility from key provisions of the law, provided that they are willing to embrace education reform.

“We will not be giving states a pass on accountability. There will be a high bar for states seeking flexibility within the law, working off a framework that the states themselves have put together with the Council of Chief State School Officers.”

A Department of Education spokesperson said that Secretary Duncan will push for waivers for states as Congress continues to work on passing a new law rewritten to uphold what worked in NCLB while addressing the areas where it did not.