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October 01, 2005

The No Child Left Behind Act: Fulfilling the Promise

by Senator Edward M. Kennedy

Few things are more indispensable to us as a people and as a nation than good schools. To-day, more than ever, a quality education is the gateway to fulfilling the American dream—to guarantee equal opportunity for all citizens, to en courage good citizenship and a commitment to community, and to create an economy capable of mastering the modern global challenges.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) into law as part of the War on Poverty. That landmark act sought to strengthen America’s schools and their capacity to provide a good education for all students by allocating substantial federal resources and support to offset the harmful effects of poverty and to turn the door to the schoolhouse into a true door to opportunity for all students. The goal was to establish America’s classrooms as a haven of learning that would enable all students, even the most vulnerable, to succeed.

In the following decades, we have made substantial progress—but far from enough. In 2002, nearly four decades later, I stood with President Bush as he signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) to modernize and reform the ESEA. I am proud of all that we accomplished to write a strong, bipartisan promise into law to improve and strengthen public education for every child. Clearly, it is time to make that promise a reality and to chart a more effective course for realizing the goal of truly leaving no child behind.

Education at a Crossroads

The NCLB was enacted at a defining moment in public education. During the economic expansion of the 1990s, new and dynamic challenges emerged in the global economy, demanding major changes in America’s workforce and far-reaching changes in America’s industry. It became clear that education would be indispensable in meeting these new challenges and maintaining progress in the new century. Investments in higher standards, stronger schools, and better teachers were vital for America’s future.

We made progress when President Clinton’s proposals for education re-form became law on March 14, 1994. The Goals 2000 Educate America Act sought to raise academic standards, measure student progress, and provide the support needed so that students could meet those high standards. From 1994 to 2000, federal education funding increased substantially. Yet more needed to be done.

State policy makers, teachers, business leaders, and local communities convened to wrestle with questions of how to raise student achievement and support innovative efforts in their schools. By 2001, forty-nine states had standards written in measurable terms. Fifteen states were assessing students annually to measure progress. A larger and larger share of the American public came to agree on the importance of having a well-qualified teacher in every classroom. States began to appreciate that teachers are true catalysts of change and gave increased attention to investment in professional development. Enrollment in after-school programs tripled in size, and eight out of ten Americans thought such programs were a necessity for children in their communities. Parents also began to demand comparative data about the schools their children attended.

In the debate on school reform, however, it was also clear that the destructive forces of poverty and inequality continued to be obstacles to opportunity and progress. The all-too-familiar achievement gaps highlighted by reports such as the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s A Nation at Risk in 1983 and more current books such as Savage Inequalities, by Jonathan Kozol, continued to persist—and in some places to widen.

The academic achievement of African-American and Latino students fell well below that of other students. As the twentieth century ended, the reading and math skills of minority high school graduates were equal to those of thirteen-year-old white students. In 2001, the Education Trust reported that one out often Latinos and one out of twenty African-Americans dropped out of high school, compared to one out of thirty whites.

Often, these disparities in student achievement corresponded with gaps in educational opportunity for students in disadvantaged schools. In 2001, students attending high-poverty middle and high schools were 77 percent more likely than students attending higher-income schools to be taught by a teacher with no background in the subject they were teaching. Many schools with growing populations of English language learners had insufficient resources to meet these students’ needs. From 1993 to 2000, the number of English language learners in public schools rose by 1 million students, a 50 percent increase.

Other challenges also existed. In 1999, only one-third of teachers re-ported feeling well prepared or very well prepared to use computers and the Internet for classroom instruction. Across the nation in the early 1990s, 25 percent of schools reported overcrowded classrooms, with class sizes ballooning, sometimes by as much as 30 percent. Many recognized that good after-school activities could make a large difference in helping young students with their schoolwork and keeping them safe and out of trouble, but 15 million children lacked access to these programs and had nothing constructive to do when the school day ended.

In short, the hope of Brown v. Board of Education to provide a quality education for all minority children was far from realized. Many of America’s students—especially lower-income and minority students—were not receiving the quality education they need and deserve. Responding to that challenge, a national imperative emerged to address these inequities, adopt standards-based reform in the states, and level the playing field.

Leaving No Child Behind

The NCLB included reforms to meet each of these disparities head-on and to reduce the achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers. In sponsoring the law, Republicans and Democrats came together to make low-income children, children with disabilities, minority children, and English language learners the top priority of school reform and established a bipartisan consensus on two central goals: supporting the improvement of America’s schools and requiring accountability for results in learning.

This commitment to students long underserved in America’s schools was a familiar hallmark first enacted in the ESEA in 1965. A number of states had made great progress in the reform decade of the 1990s, but state accountability structures still lacked the commitment to quality, equity, and adequacy necessary to offer a world-class education to all students.

In some states, standards were too vague or exhaustive to apply to student learning. In others, standards lacked challenging content or reflected expectations well below those of other countries. Tests often did not reflect what students should know and be able to do in their grade, and too many did not include the multiple measures needed to gain a complete picture of student performance. Many states had shaped accountability systems to track and report student progress, but too few had adopted realistic goals for improvement. Only four states accounted for and reported the achievement of every group of students in their schools.

The reforms in the NCLB built upon the groundwork of school reform developed throughout the 1990s, and sought to improve upon it. For the first time, the law made a commitment that every child would be part of an accountability system: black or white, Latino or Asian, rich or poor. It promised that English language learners and students with disabilities would be given the opportunity to meet the same standards as all other students, and it held schools accountable for achieving that progress.

The NCLB required every state to implement a road map for improved teaching and learning, based on content standards that specify what children should know and performance standards that specify the level at which students should master materials. In each core academic subject, these standards set the bar and guide instruction in the right direction.

A new commitment was made to enhance the quality of state tests, align them to standards to measure what students know and can do, and include multiple measures to gain a more complete picture of student achievement.

The law also recognized that al-though standards and tests are critical building blocks of reform, they lack the ability alone to level the playing field in America’s schools. The re-forms of the NCLB also included improving the quality of teaching through better professional development for teachers and providing a highly qualified teacher for every child. The law expanded the opportunities students have to participate in after-school programs and delivered extra tutoring and academic support to students in struggling schools. It provided the information that parents need about their children’s schools and supported programs to help them become more involved in their child’s education.

The law also expanded support for early reading and literacy skills, and the availability of books for school libraries. It also reached out to give homeless children, children of mi-grant workers, and children of immigrants the support and opportunities they need to master high standards and succeed in school.

Most important, the law recognized that, in order to move forward with this change in America’s schools, a continuing infusion of additional federal resources would be critical because the cost of the reforms was obviously too great for state and local governments to bear alone. At the time the law was passed, Congress delivered $22 million to support public education, an increase of 19 percent over the previous year and an investment that was unprecedented. It also promised increased funding levels over the life of its provisions, in step with the increasing targets for student performance.

Fulfilling the Promise

Today, concerns abound over the NCLB. School districts and teachers across the country are crying foul. Some complain that the law’s accountability provisions are unfair. Others argue that the law’s requirements are too prescriptive, inflexible, or inconsistent with classroom practice. One thing is clear: Congress and the Bush administration have failed to ensure that no child is left behind.

We know that these reforms can work. In Massachusetts, the transformation of public education began with the passage of our own Education Reform Act of 1993. Over the next decade, the state introduced and implemented new standards and accountability, coupled with a $31 million investment to help local schools make the grade. The building blocks for reform included higher standards, better teachers, after-school programs, and remedial help for students. The results have been impressive. Test scores have gone up for students in every grade, in every subject, and for every racial and ethnic group. On the statewide tests each year, more and more children from each racial and ethnic group pass both the reading and math sections of the test. And on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the nation’s report card— Massachusetts is at the head of the class, ranking first in the nation in reading and second in math.

Experience has shown that each year yields greater success when educators commit in the long term to higher standards, better teacher training, stronger accountability, and extra help for students in need. Experience has also shown that these good results are not possible without new investments. We cannot reform our schools and move forward in this new century to master the nation’s challenges on a tin-cup education budget.

Today, half of all public school districts are facing funding cuts at a time when the nation is asking them to do more. Twenty percent of public schools are on watch lists in their states because they failed state standards. Over 10,000 schools have been identified as needing improvement under the law. One-third of students who begin high school fail to earn a diploma. Access to qualified teachers is still a promise denied for many children.

Clearly, the most disingenuous aspect of the implementation of the NCLB has been the lack of funding to carry out the law successfully. In fact, just one month after its passage, President Bush proposed an education budget that actually cut funding for the new reforms at the very time the administration was also proposing to divert $4 million in scarce public education funds to give to private schools. Bush’s education budget this year falls $12 million short of the promise under NCLB. It leaves 3 million children behind, funding only two-thirds of the amount promised to reduce class sizes, improve teaching, and set higher standards for our schools.

Some continue to call for suspension or repeal of the act. But turning back the clock on the act is no solution, especially for the neediest students who would gain the most from its reforms. Even if the Bush administration has fallen short of this promise, many of us who helped shape this ambitious new course for our public schools refuse to forfeit these goals. Too much is at stake for the nation’s children.

“No child left behind” is more than just a slogan. It is a moral commitment and a solemn oath to children, parents, and communities that we will provide the opportunity for each child to receive a quality education. It is an expression of our basic values that we are willing to make the tough choices and hard sacrifices to improve our schools—because our schools are indispensable to opportunity and success. Our nation is stronger if we prepare our children for good jobs and healthy families. It is part of our basic commitment to democracy and equality of opportunity for all that, no matter one’s race, income, or language, everyone counts and deserves to enjoy the benefits of our society.

We must have an equally strong commitment to expanding access to quality early childhood education. Despite a growing body of research demonstrating that investments in early education pay for themselves, many children still lack access to quality programs. Prevention works in health care, and it can work in education.

As our graduates struggle to compete in the global economy, a college education is more important than ever. When I graduated from high school, good jobs were available to those without a college education. Today, most jobs that support a family require some postsecondary training. Yet, last year alone, 400,000 college-ready students did not attend a four-year college because they could not afford to do so. Cost should never be a barrier to a college education.

America ’s founders recognized educational opportunity as an enduring truth. In 1780, John Adams emphasized this commitment in a statement on the Massachusetts constitution, drafted that year. He said that education of the people was “necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberty.” What is needed now is a return to that spirit and to the principles of excellence and equality of opportunity that shaped the NCLB. And, this time, the focus must be on making the act’s promise a genuine reality for all people.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy

Edward M. Kennedy has represented Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate since 1962. He is Ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and second-most senior member of the Senate.