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NCLB: Perspectives on the law

Linda Darling-Hammond


In recognition of the 10th anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act, Education Week Commentary asked leaders in the K-12 community to consider the law’s impact. Below is Linda Darling-Hammond's commentary on the federal role in education reform. To read the full series, see Education Week's NCLB Turns 10: Perspectives on the No Child Left Behind Act. 

After 10 years of missed opportunity under No Child Left Behind, we must learn from our experience to accelerate academic progress and improve the quality of learning in American schools.

Lesson #1: Don’t overreach. The federal role should not be to micromanage educational decisions, but to enable strategic investments that will increase opportunity. The quest for 100 percent proficiency has focused attention on boosting scores, but it has also narrowed the curriculum, encouraged exclusions of struggling students, and undermined confidence in federal initiatives.

Meanwhile, federal efforts to prescribe top-down reforms have often wreaked havoc in the field. From the dismantling of many successful local reading programs under Reading First to more recent requirements for turnaround models that research has found ineffective, federal overreach can leave students further behind.

Lesson #2: Focus on genuine equity. NCLB helped us understand the severity of achievement gaps between different student groups, but it has not provided sufficient resources in strategic ways to address the sources of those gaps. The small federal allocation makes hardly a dent in our huge state and local funding disparities, and is not being spent in high-leverage ways. National education policy must expect states to be transparent about the availability of resources to students and to pursue funding equity.

Lesson #3: Invest strategically. The Title I formula should better target low-income states and communities and support investments known to improve student achievement: quality preschool, high-quality preparation and professional development for teachers and school leaders, wraparound services and community schools, and summer learning opportunities.

Finally, the federal government should learn from high-achieving nations and encourage the use of more thoughtful performance-based assessments. Used to inform curriculum improvements and teacher development, rather than to punish students, teachers, or schools, such assessments would support higher-quality instruction and more engaged learning.