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Lessons from NCLB

Last month marked the tenth anniversary of the passage of the landmark No Child Left Behind Act. Many education organizations, reformers, and commentators issued statements or wrote columns describing what a decade of experience had revealed about the law's weaknesses and strengths. Many cited what they regard as the law's unrealistic goal of all students performing at the proficient level by 2014. Others criticized the law's requirement that for a school to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), each student demographic subgroup had to improve its academic performance each year. The law also had defenders who praised NCLB's high expectations for all students' performance. Many commentators referenced how NCLB has caused states to produce more reliable student performance data, and prompted educators to learn how to use the data.

Most of these NCLB commentaries didn't address professional learning. This isn't surprising since NCLB had few requirements related to professional development. The law's requirement that all teachers be "highly qualified" sparked a flurry of professional development, but its focus was more about credentialing than improving teachers' performance. The law also included a definition of professional development that had been lacking in previous iterations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but it was primarily a list of permitted activities. The law called for such activities to be "regularly evaluated for their impact on increased teacher effectiveness and improved student academic achievement," but the Department of Education never enforced this provision, and states and school systems ignored it.

This is not to say that the NCLB has had no impact on professional learning. Because the low performance of one or more student subgroups could result in a school failing to make AYP, large numbers of schools were identified as academically deficient. This was true even for schools that had for years enjoyed good reputations because most of their students performed well while, "below the radar," the academic performance of a minority of students languished. Some school systems found problems so severe that they replaced administrators and required all teachers to resign and reapply for their former positions. But what school systems soon realized was that many teachers simply did not have the knowledge and skills necessary to enable their students to meet the NCLB's proficiency expectations. In addition, the students who were least able to perform at standard were often those whose learning was complicated by their poverty, first language, disability, or other factors, and this also challenged many teachers.

Since NCLB's passage, school systems have realized that providing more resources to schools, improving the curriculum, and assigning more talented administrators will not, by themselves, increase student achievement. Teacher performance must also have to improve. The only way to achieve this result is for educators to engage more frequently and systematically in quality professional learning.

School systems now understand that professional learning is not just a teacher benefit, a demand of teacher unions, or a state requirement. Instead, it is fundamental to increasing student performance.

Implementation exposes the limitations and unintended consequences of any legislation. As the past 10 years have demonstrated, the No Child Left Behind Act was far from perfect, but, indirectly, it did succeed in causing states and school systems to take more seriously the quality, intensity, frequency, and results of professional learning. And the next iteration of the law will certainly include more attention to increasing teachers' knowledge and skills.

Stephanie Hirsh
Executive Director, Learning Forward

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