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No Child Left Behind’s promise falls short after 10 years

Critics abound, but partisanship prevents change

WASHINGTON - The No Child Left Behind education law was cast as a symbol of possibility, offering the promise of improved schools for the nation’s poor and minority children and better prepared students in a competitive world.

But after a decade on the books, President George W. Bush’s most hyped domestic accomplishment has become a symbol to many of federal overreach and Congress’s inability to fix something clearly flawed.

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The law forced schools to confront the uncomfortable reality that many kids children were not learning, but it is primarily known for its emphasis on standardized tests and the labeling of thousands of schools as failures.

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the day Bush signed it into law in Hamilton, Ohio. By his side were the leaders of the education committees in Congress, Representative John Boehner, Republican of Ohio, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. The bipartisanship that made the achievement possible in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks is long gone.

The same Senate committee approved a revamped education bill last year, but deep-rooted partisanship stalled the measure in the full Congress. There appears little political will for compromise despite widespread agreement that changes are needed.

Critics say the law carries rigid and unrealistic expectations.

Frustrated by the congressional inaction, President Obama told states last fall that they could seek a waiver around unpopular proficiency requirements in exchange for actions his administration favors. A vast majority of states have said they will go that route, seen as a temporary fix until lawmakers act.

Like Obama, Republican presidential candidates have criticized the law. One, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, said he regrets voting for it.

“If you called a rally to keep No Child Left Behind as it is, not a single person would show up,’’ said Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, a Democrat and former school superintendent of Denver.

The view was drastically different 10 years ago, when Bush took an uncommon stance for a conservative in seeking an aggressive federal role in forcing states and districts to tackle abysmal achievement gaps in schools.

He was able to get fellow Republicans such as Boehner, the current House speaker, and Democratic leaders on education such as Kennedy, who died in 2009, and Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, to join him. The mandate was that all students read and perform math on grade level by 2014.

“No longer is it acceptable to hide poor performance. No longer is it acceptable to keep results from parents,’’ Bush said when he signed the legislation. “We’re never going to give up on a school that’s performing poorly; that when we find poor performance, a school will be given time and incentives and resources to correct their problems.’’

The law requires annual testing. Districts must publish data showing how subgroups of students perform.

Schools that do not meet requirements for two years or longer face increasingly tough consequences, from busing children to higher performing schools to offering tutoring and replacing staff.

Test results were eye-opening, recalled Miller, the top Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

“People were stunned because they were always led to believe that things were going fine in this particular school. And the fact of the matter was, for huge numbers of students that was not the case,’’ Miller said.

How successful the law has been academically remains under debate. Over the years, the academic gains have largely plateaued, and there are still large differences in performance by black and Hispanic students, compared with white students.

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