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‘No Child Left Behind’ legislation gets left behind

North Dakota is joining 33 other states in asking the federal government to waive the performance criteria required by the No Child Left Behind legislation signed into law in 2002. The law was a national effort to raise reading and math proficiency in public schools.

With two-thirds of the states now obtaining waivers of various requirements of the law, it is time to concede that the effort was a failure. Armed with new flexibility, these states will tailor the program to meet their own priorities.

Standards will be relaxed and the goals will be minimized. Every state will have its own plan.

Competitiveness in the global market was the major impetus for the law at the national level. That was never a primary objective at the state level. Concern over world competitiveness varies from state to state which means that the desired results will vary from state to state, depending on the importance of international trade on their agendas.

Under North Dakota’s proposal for a waiver, the state plans to delegate the evaluation of school progress to the local school districts, with some guidelines from the state.

At an initial briefing on NCLB in 2003, Don Piper , a UND professor emeritus of educational leadership, said “the law is based on an incredibly naïve assumption , and that is that 100 percent of all students in all 50 states will be able to get to 100 percent proficiency in 12 years.”

Don Piper was right.

The effort was naïve because a systematic change would have been required to achieve such a high standard in so short a time. Under the most favorable circumstances in our status quo system of government change comes hard and then only incrementally.

When it comes to reforming education, change is almost impossible because every cook in the kitchen gets a spoon in the soup. Before change can get through the federal government, the state government and the local school districts, everybody is entitled to have a “say” about change.

NCLB was not only handicapped by the large number of players in this multi-layered game but a plethora of other problems impaired the effort - problems that rose out of the naivety of the planners.

First, there was no nation-wide consensus on the problem or the solution. That skewed support. Next, the program was underfunded. We found out it was cheaper to issue mandates than to implement them.

Change would be required in the way teachers are evaluated and retained. And a good process for doing that was still being sought. (Just because half of the class is flunking doesn’t mean the teacher is a loser. )

The greatest change would have been required of families. When children fail to perform in school, much of the time it is parental failure and not school failure.

We not only need good teachers in schools but we need strong parental support in homes. And families weren’t (aren’t) about to change lifestyles to help children meet higher standards .

In short, NCLB required too much change in too complex a system to be successful.

With 34 states getting waivers, there is no uniform nationwide attack on the performance gap between American kids and the rest of the world. Each state is pretty much doing its own thing. We may abandon NCLB but we still have an education gap with which to deal.