It has been 30 years since the landmark report "A Nation At Risk" documented the failings of America's public-school system, and the past three decades have seen much promising reform on the local, state and federal levels, in legislatures, on school boards and in classrooms. Yet today, the trend lines again are moving in the wrong direction, with federal policy inviting states to back away from their duty to ensure that students receive the education they deserve.
Since 2011, the U.S. Department of Education has granted waivers to 34 states and the District of Columbia exempting them from some of the core accountability measures in the bipartisan 2001 No Child Left Behind law. Ten more states have waiver applications pending. Meanwhile, the Texas legislature is considering loosening public-school testing standards, and nine districts in California have independently moved to submit NCLB waiver requests.
No Child Left Behind was based on the idea that schools should establish measurable educational goals and be held accountable for meeting them. This is the only proven formula for improving education in this country-and NCLB has generated some amazing results, particularly in low-income minority communities. Unfortunately, opponents of the law have relied on disingenuous claims in pushing for waivers.
Myth No. 1. The federal government doesn't have a role to play in local education decisions. Teachers and local educators have primary responsibility for teaching students, but that doesn't mean that other levels of government should remain silent. When schools fail, no corner of government can abdicate responsibility. Most American schools derive 10 percent or more of their budgets from the federal government, and schools have lobbied for more federal dollars even as their performance has stagnated. (The Economist magazine recently ranked America's education system a dismal 17th in the world.) NCLB allows states some flexibility to set their own standards, but it ties funding to whether they meet meaningful goals. Its simple premise is that Washington shouldn't reward schools if they fail to educate students.
Myth No. 2. Standardized tests are a poor means of measuring student learning. Of course the education system shouldn't discount the judgment of teachers and school administrators, but objective data can make educators and policy makers aware of problems that were previously ignored.
While schools had long been concerned about low achievement among minority students, only NCLB testing revealed the true depths of America's racial-achievement gaps. This was a long overdue wake-up call. Just three years after the law was signed, proficiency in reading and math among Hispanic and African- American students hit an all-time high.
Myth No. 3. NCLB unfairly holds teachers chiefly responsible for student performance. The best chance a child has to succeed academically is to be in the classroom of a skilled teacher. Student testing and accountability standards can help identify good teachers, retain them and determine best practices for helping others improve their craft.
Even marginal improvements in teacher quality can be significant. A 2012 study by three economists — Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of Harvard and Jonah E. Rockoff of Columbia — found that if a student has just one excellent teacher for a full term between fourth grade and eighth, the student will earn $4,600 more in lifetime income.
That's one good reason why it makes sense that student achievement be tied to teacher evaluation.
Myth No. 4. The fact that so many states want waivers from NCLB shows that the law didn't work. In 2006, five years after NCLB's passage, the Department of Education determined that 43 states and Washington, D.C., had either improved academically or held steady in all categories. America's 9-year-olds have made more progress in reading skills since 2002 than they did in the 28 years before NCLB's passage.
Despite this success, schools in 16 states can now repeatedly miss their "annual measurable objectives" without any significant state intervention or consequences. This isn't a reflection of NCLB's failure but of failed political leadership in Washington.
Americans applaud setting goals. Education should be one of them, even if it means exerting pressure on entrenched bureaucracies. But only if Washington is dedicated to this goal will America really develop a school system that leaves no child behind.
Eric Smith was Florida's education commissioner from 2007 to 2010.