From the time it was signed into law by President Bush in 2002 (after receiving overwhelming bipartisan congressional support), No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was unpopular among teachers, school districts, and parents. Last week, with similar bipartisan support, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), spelling the end of NCLB. David L. Kirp says “good riddance to a misbegotten law”:

No Child Left Behind, on the books since 2002, was supposed to close achievement gaps for disadvantaged students (racial and ethnic minorities, low-income students, youngsters with special needs and English learners) and to eliminate what President George W. Bush decried as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” The goal was audacious — by 2014, the law decreed, 100 percent of students would perform at grade level.

Instead, things have gotten worse by almost every measure. SAT scores have declined, as have the scores of American students, compared with their counterparts in other nations, on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exam. The rate of progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card, was actually higher, both over all and for specific demographic groups, during the decade before No Child Left Behind than after it was passed.


Kirp says the new law “shifts the balance of power in education away from Washington and back to the states.” No Child Left Behind was roundly criticized for forcing educators to “teach for the standardized tests” which had taken on greater importance for school districts being held accountable to federal standards. Less standardized testing with ESSA will be a welcome change:

While states are still required to test students annually in reading and math from third to eighth grade, and at least once in high school, they have a freer hand in designing those tests. What’s more, those standardized tests count for less in evaluating schools. At least one other measure of academic improvement, like graduation rates and, for nonnative speakers, proficiency in English, must be included. And a student performance measure, like grit or school climate, has to be part of the evaluation equation. This multipronged approach should make it easier for educators to replace some drill-and-kill memorization with more hands-on learning and critical thinking.


Will lifting the sword away from the heads of school districts, as ESSA intends to do, also mean children will see a renewed emphasis on physical education, music, and art in their primary and secondary school curricula? We’ll have to wait and see.

Tomorrow, we will look at “7 Things Every Kid Should Master” as they go through their  K-12 education.