When the federal government decides to get involved in something, it usually results in what we might call the ratchet effect. The involvement starts in a limited way with the goal of achieving a specific objective. But soon this involvement grows beyond its original purpose. Public officials spend more money, write more laws, publish more guidelines, impose more regulation, and demand more specific reporting until policy implementation more or less takes over the whole show.
If this sounds familiar, you must recall the inexorable rise of No Child Left Behind, the dubious education legislation from which our students have only just now been released.
Once the federal government pushed its way into our schools with mandatory testing and top-down oversight, it couldn't seem to find its way out. What began as a quest for accountability ultimately became a policy prison for students and teachers alike. Now that NCLB is finally banished to history, our schools will have to re-acclimate to life on the outside.
Dismantling a Mistake
The purpose here isn't to argue whether the ratchet effect is a good thing or a bad thing. But educators are in wholehearted agreement that the federal government's No Child Left Behind program, passed by an overwhelming congressional majority in 2001, was a mistake. However, the ratchet effect makes it nearly impossible to dismantle. Washington has not been known in recent decades for handing power back to the states and local governments.
And yet, last month the congress passed and President Obama signed sweeping changes to NCLB that return educational oversight to states and school districts after fourteen years of federal control. These changes end the controversial and much-criticized high-stakes testing that was a key feature of NCLB legislation, specifically of the waiver program that most states applied for which triggered the testing mandate. The new law also allows states to set their own standards and methods of measuring them, albeit within a federally-mandated framework.
Against all odds, the federal government has been nudged out of our schools.
This is encouraging news for everyone who cares about education because it reminds us that the ratchet rule, though dominant, doesn't always apply. Sometimes there are legislators dedicated enough to the cause to overcome all the roadblocks and inertia that stand in the way of de-ratchetification.
It took eight years—three years longer than NCLB was actually on the books—to revise the law after the original statute expired in 2007. Give credit to Senators Patty Murray (D. Wash.), former preschool teacher, and Lamar Alexander (R. Tenn.), former university president and Secretary of Education, for devising a breakthrough solution and getting a bi-partisan bill out the door in eleven months along with their allies in the House, John Kline (R. Minn.) and Bobby Scott (D. Va.).
Flexibility and Encouragement
Not only does the new Every Student Succeeds Act mean the end of a long and well-documented list of administrative headaches, it returns control of education to the local bodies that have historically overseen our nation's schools. A national one-size-fits-all approach failed largely because students are individuals with different strengths and abilities and preferences, neighborhoods have their own histories and traditions, and the Class of 2016 may be naturally smarter than the Class of 2015 but maybe not. Testing is still required under the new legislation, but the states have wide flexibility in how and when tests are given. Furthermore, states are no longer pressured into adopting the Common Core standards that drove those infamous tests.
There are still what Senator Murray calls “federal guardrails” to make sure students have access to a quality education no matter where they live. Districts have to submit their plans for ensuring local educational quality to the Department of Education. Schools that perform at the bottom 5%, schools where minority, poor, or special needs students consistently underachieve, and high schools where fewer than 67% of students graduate, are still subject to state takeover. But how the states fulfill this requirement is up to them. The Secretary of Education can no longer order school closings or dictate the specifics of a state's intervention. That means the days of heavy-handed federal control with its inflexible mandates and harsh penalties for non-compliance are over.
The best part about replacing NCLB is that it will be a great encouragement for teachers. Teachers are the Tiffany setting of the educational system: nothing is more important than finding, recruiting, and retaining those who are creative, dedicated, and effective. No teacher I know ever had anything nice to say about NCLB and its associated testing mandates. On the contrary, their objections were many and sometimes stated with considerable flair. I have no doubt that far too many good ones threw up their hands and walked away rather than deal with the frustrations and limitations of federal mandates.
Every Student Succeeds decouples teacher evaluations from student test results. Now teachers can toss away those old policies that required “teaching to the test” and get back to the work they signed up for: bringing their own individual creativity and interests into the classroom, with more time for instruction and less spent on non-productive testing and paperwork.
A Fresh Start
The federal government has given state legislatures and school boards a fresh start, a chance to put their own ideas into practice after years of standing on the sidelines, a triumph of common sense over bureaucratic inertia. Let us not only wish the locals well, let's all of us – students, teachers, parents, policymakers, citizens, neighbors – pitch in to help them.
NCLB is gone and with it many of the old excuses for failure, to be replaced by fresh ideas and new opportunities for success.