The federal education law passed under President Bush in 2001, No Child Left Behind, has been a disaster for Connecticut. As a product of Connecticut’s public schools, and the son and husband of former teachers, I know that No Child Left Behind had good intentions — pushing states to improve failing schools and results for minority and disabled students — but the law went off the rails when it turned teaching into one big test preparation exercise.
I came to Congress determined to repeal No Child Left Behind. But I also realize that in its wake, Congress would be faced with a Goldilocks kind of problem.
We need to repeal the parts of No Child Left Behind that place too many federal mandates on local schools, without removing the guard rails that keep states from marginalizing their most vulnerable students.
Like Goldilocks, the challenge Congress faced when rewriting No Child Left Behind this year was to find a solution that was “just right.”
As a member of the committee in the Senate charged with writing this new education law, I was in a good position to help find this balance.
I told the stories I heard from Connecticut teachers about the ridiculous amount of time they spent getting ready for their students to take standardized tests, or the parents who felt ashamed to send their child to a school that had been arbitrarily listed as an underperforming school.
I talked about the administrators who felt helpless when their schools were put on these “shame lists,” but were offered no help from the federal government to turn them around other than an inflexible list of mandated interventions.
But I also described the continuing reality in Connecticut of children in low income neighborhoods - often African-American or Hispanic - getting an unequal education to their suburban, mostly white peers.
And I was reminded by the great civil rights leaders that still walk the hallways of Washington that the federal government originally got in the business of overseeing local education to make sure that schools had an equal commitment to quality education and civil rights.
So I became the voice for the civil rights community, knowing that Connecticut’s racial and economic achievement gaps still rank among the worst in the nation.
In the end, our committee produced a bill that met my test — a significant rollback of unnecessary federal mandates on local schools, without undoing the expectation that schools educate everyone equally, regardless of geography, race, income, or learning ability. No Child Left Behind’s replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act, meets the Goldilocks test — not too much federal oversight, but still enough accountability to protect vulnerable students.
Under the new law, states — not the federal government — set goals for student achievement and hold schools accountable for meeting them. For schools with the lowest student achievement, for high schools that are graduating less than two-thirds of their students, and for those with dramatically under-performing groups of vulnerable students, like those with disabilities, districts have to develop a plan for improvement that is approved and monitored by the state.
But those plans are not dictated by bureaucrats in Washington, but by local educators.
I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without the great education I received from the Wethersfield public school system.
But No Child Left Behind had taken the joy and the effectiveness out of local education. Now, teachers and parents are empowered again, without removing the incentives for schools to continuously improve.
That’s the right balance that will assure that every kid in Connecticut gets the chance to get the same education I did.
Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, is the junior U.S. Senator from Connecticut and a member of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee.