'A Christmas Miracle': Obama Signs Bill to Replace No Child Left Behind Law

by | December 11, 2015

By Joy Resmovits

With the stroke of a pen, the No Child Left Behind Act became history on Thursday.

President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, a bipartisan replacement to the universally unpopular, nearly 15-year-old education law. At the White House ceremony, he was joined by legislators, outgoing U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, his successor John King, and a middle school student.

"This is an early Christmas present," Obama said. "After more than 10 years, members of Congress from both parties have come together to revise our national education law. A Christmas miracle."

The signing of the new law culminates a period when schools were graded and deemed to be successes or failures based on their students' standardized test scores. It marks a recognition by many educators, states, researchers and districts that what happens in a school is much more complex than a single number could ever show.

No Child Left Behind was signed by President George W. Bush in 2002 to much pomp and promise. The law dramatically expanded the federal government's footprint in America's public schools by mandating annual standardized testing in math and reading from grades three to eight and once in high school. NCLB established a goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014 and punished schools based on those test scores.

"The goals of No Child Left Behind ... were the right ones," Obama said. "But in practice, it often fell short. ... It often forced schools and school districts into cookie-cutter reforms."

The new law still requires standardized tests in grades three through eight and in high school, and the reporting of how all students do on those tests, but it gives states more authority. Instead of mandating specific punishments, the law says that states and districts can intervene in underperforming schools by whatever "evidence-based" method they choose.

Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association, supported the bill. "We are excited to witness and help usher in a new era of local control and reform at the federal level that recognizes the potential of all children," Heins said in a statement.

California might be ahead of other states in implementing the law, because the state is already devising a system for measuring schools that considers more than just test scores.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson rejoiced. "Congress and President Obama have followed California's lead in eliminating categorical funded programs in favor of larger block grants, enhancing local control, and providing more flexibility to set up accountability systems using multiple measures to assess progress instead of a single test score," he said in a statement.

Under the law, states must identify schools that need extra help by creating an accountability system that weights academics much more than other factors, but also includes at least one non-academic factor. The law requires states to identify and work with the bottom 5 percent of its schools; schools where more than a third of students don't graduate high school on time; and schools where specific groups of students consistently underperform. The law also requires reporting on college enrollment and expands high-quality preschool, and requires that states set academic standards that reflect college readiness.

"With this bill, we reaffirm that fundamental American ideal that every child, regardless of race, income, background, the ZIP Code where they live, deserves the chance to make out of their lives what they will," Obama said, adding that the administration would be talking to stakeholders to "make the promise of this law reality."

Since NCLB's expiration in 2007, Congress has taken up rewriting the bill in fits and starts, but divisions between Democrats and Republicans halted almost every effort.

Obama campaigned on rewriting No Child Left Behind, and he gave Congress a deadline of 2011 to get the job done. But when that didn't happen, he invited states to apply for waivers to get them out of the law's most cumbersome strictures, in exchange for agreeing to Obama-favored reforms such as tying teacher evaluations in part to students' test scores.

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