Kennedy's NCLB Legacy.

On Wednesday, Mark wrote of Ted Kennedy:

If he had known that the administration didn't intend to fund the No Child Left Behind legislation, he might not have lent his support in 2001...It took him a while, as it did most liberals, to appreciate that there were no real opportunities in the Bush years, that steadfast opposition was the only honorable position.

On education, how harshly should we judge Kennedy's cooperation on NCLB? The legislation was underfunded. It allowed states to make up their own academic standards, and dumb them down in order to avoid being labeled as "failing." It subjected American children to more frequent high-stakes math and reading testing, thus narrowing the curriculum away from creative writing, science experiments, art, and music. And it totally failed to deliver on its promise to deliver a highly-qualified teacher to every student's classroom.

NCLB needs to be rethought. But what everyone agrees almost eight years later is that its passage was crucial in one key regard: For the first time, it required states to disaggregate student achievement data by race, class, and English language learner status, allowing us to understand the true breadth of the achievement gap. The race and class-consciousness behind that move may have been more difficult for a Democrat to push through Congress, and perhaps Kennedy understood that.

NCLB's reauthorization has been delayed over and over again since 2007, in part because of intra-Democratic Party debates over the role of teacher evaluation and student testing, and in part because of the prioritization of other issues, such as health care. Early last year, Kennedy wrote in the Washington Post that he supported the reauthorization of NCLB if it could be fully funded, and he introduced the SUCCESS Act. The bill was intended to make NCLB more effective by providing extra dollars to states willing to work together to create higher, internationally bench marked education standards and student assessments. From the Senate floor, Kennedy said:

Experience shows that each year yields greater success when policymakers and educators commit in the long term to higher standards, better teacher training, stronger accountability, and extra help for students in need. The initial implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act has been flawed, but we can’t abandon its vision of an America in which every child is important and deserves to be educated and enjoy the full benefits of our society.

That vision is as enduring as America itself. As John Adams wrote in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, the education of the people is “necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberty.” More than two hundred years later, we need to recapture that spirit, and make “No Child Left Behind” a reality, not merely a slogan.

This is the vision behind the Obama administration's education policy, and also behind a new movement, led by the National Governor's Association, to create national standards. Almost every state has signed-on. Whether that effort yields broad, intellectually rigorous standards -- without over-relying on standardized testing -- remains to be seen. Like health reform, education reform is an incomplete part of Kennedy's legacy.

--Dana Goldstein

You may also like