America’s Kids Need a Better Education Law

This op-ed originally appeared in August 25 edition of The Washington Post.

The nation’s most sweeping education law — the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, better known as No Child Left Behind — is outmoded and broken. Congress has gone home for its summer recess without passing a responsible replacement.

That’s too bad. America deserves a better law.

At the heart of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is a promise: to set a high bar for all students and to protect the most vulnerable. Success in that effort will be measured in the opportunities for our nation’s children, in a time when a solid education is the surest path to a middle-class life. Tight global economic competition means that jobs will go where the skills are. Raising student performance could not be more urgent.


“The nation’s most sweeping education law — the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, better known as No Child Left Behind — is outmoded and broken,” writes Secretary Arne Duncan

No Child Left Behind has given the country transparency about the progress of at-risk students. But its inflexible accountability provisions have become an obstacle to progress and have focused schools too much on a single test score. NCLB is six years overdue for an update, and nearly all agree that it should be replaced with a law that gives systems and educators greater freedom while continuing to fulfill the law’s original promise.

The vision of American education that President Obama and I share starts in the classroom — with fully engaged students, creative and inspiring teachers, and the support and resources needed to get every child prepared for college and career. Students in our poorest communities should enjoy learning opportunities like those in our wealthiest communities. Zip code, race, disability and family income should not limit students’ opportunities or reduce expectations for them. The progress of U.S. students should remain transparent.

Washington’s role is to protect children at risk and promote opportunity for all. The federal government is not, and will never be, in the business of telling states or schools what or how to teach. But it cannot shirk its role of ensuring that schools and students meet the high bar that prepares them for the real world. History shows that, without some kind of accountability, states and districts do not always meet the needs of the most vulnerable students.

Yet the backers of a bill passed by the House last month would use this moment to weaken that role and reverse reforms that carry enormous benefits for children. Others would retreat from ongoing efforts to strengthen and elevate the teaching profession. Neither would be a smart move.

Let’s not kid ourselves that things are fine. The United States once led the world in the proportion of its young people who had completed college; today, we are 12th. Three-quarters of our young people are deemed unfit for military service, in part because of gaps in their education. This is no time to sit back.

States must play the central role in leading the education agenda — and their work in partnership with the Education Department provides a road map toward a better law. These states have established high standards, robust teacher and principal evaluations and support systems, smart use of data, and ambitious learning goals. They have made bold efforts to improve our lowest-performing schools. They are also adopting assessments that move beyond today’s fill-in-the-bubble tests.

Consider the new teacher and principal evaluation systems that Tennessee has pioneered. Not only has student proficiency improved in every area — but so has teachers’ support for these rigorous new systems, according to an independent survey. Massachusetts has used its greater flexibility to target federal funds to improve the lowest-performing schools, with significant success.

Such progress offers a vision of what the core principles of a new elementary and secondary education law should be. It must set states free to use their best ideas to support students and teachers. It also must align student learning and growth with career- and college-readiness.

Yet some in Congress would reduce the federal government to a passive check-writer, asking nothing in return for taxpayers’ funds. And they would lock in major cuts to education funding at a time when continued investment in education is the only way we can remain globally competitive. Far better ideas, which build on state and local reform efforts, can be found in the bill passed in June by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee.

In the months ahead, I will ask Congress to listen to those doing the real work of education change. Principals, teachers, governors, state education chiefs, superintendents, parents and students themselves know what is and isn’t working. They can guide us to a better law.

Lawmakers in both chambers and parties should agree on a bill that raises the bar, protects children, supports and improves effective teaching and school leadership, and provides flexibility and supports good work at the state and local level. We should give them the resources and the flexibility and make sure we all are accountable for the job we are doing on behalf of our children.

We are fighting not just for a strong education system but also for our country. A good law is part of that fight.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education


  1. The problem with our educational system right now is that children are suffering. When you have a child that struggles it is tough. When no one will help or do anything to help that child get a good education – – it is wrong!!
    We need to work TOGETHER. Which means parents and students need to respect teachers ——-BUT teachers also need to show the same respect to their students and parents. When a teacher tells her class – – I GIVE UP ON YOU. That is not acceptable. We need to get rid of teachers who don’t care.
    Teaching (or not teaching) math via videos is not the answer. Kids can’t stand in line for half the class – waiting to get papers corrected and that is the only contact they have with the teacher.
    They can’t be told to watch the video, try it 2-3 times (do the work, get it checked – wrong, sent back to do it again) and only getting assistance from a teacher after the 3rd time failing the work. By then the student has the wrong way in their heads and they need to relearn the correct way!! Then we wonder why the student fails the test.
    Our school system is broken. We need to teach students and we need to want to see them succeed. All students need an equal chance – – testing students and setting unattainable goals isn’t working. We need to get back to the basics and TEACH!!
    Teachers need an incentive to teach. We can’t continue to have teachers be UNTOUCHABLE because of tenure. We have WAY to many bad teachers in the system right now!

  2. NCLB’s transparency provisions showing where subgroups of children perform are great.

    One of the most striking things I have learned since NCLB is that schools will only perform to the minimum of any laws and sometimes do less. My child’s middle school now focuses only on making children proficient in select subjects and the standard for proficient is very low. NCLB didn’t leave the more highly proficient or low achieving students behind; instead, the failure belongs to the school systems themselves. Therefore, any new or replacement law is going to have to be very tough and have huge penalties for slacker school systems. We can’t expect students to achieve with slacker school systems and slacker adults as examples.

  3. Part of the problem today is the lack of respect for education in some communities. Some students cannot bring a daily folder back and forth to school nor do they complete homework. When parents are questioned they do not seem to care and take no action. We need an education system that demands respect from all communities. Children must be able to connect their lives with a positive outcome brought about by completing high school (at the least). Parents must buy into education. Community and family support is a major component that must be fostered and encouraged.

  4. Federal funding of education needs to be used like a Tomahawk Missile-it needs to zero in on the failed communities around the failed schools because there are no local government entities to depend on. In reading the responses I see two distinct story lines-educations is the ladder out of poverty, this is wasteful spending.
    Both views are correct; spreading the limited federal money to thin is ineffective, consolidate it into the deepest pockets of poverty to get results (it will be subjectively expensive-but historically we as a nation have under spent). Put the funds out for Pre-K3 and up programs, fully fund a nutrition program that includes late afternoon meals, fund after school scholastic and intramural programs-and fund the personnel for them. The longer each day we can remove children from the hopeless world of poverty, the better we can imprint these children with the 7 characteristics of success.
    Carry this program through middle school and high school. Fund co-op business ventures so low income students can have real experiences in the business world, fully fund a mentor program and a vocation program. Allow the older children to carry through the imprinting program through these avenues of success.
    But mainly, keep the funds isolated to the deepest areas of poverty.

  5. No Child Left Behind left half of the children in America behind because it is driven by test scores not student achievement and student needs.

    I am actually thinking about moving so that my grandchild can live in a school district that passed the Nation’s Report Card!! How do I get my current school district to move from a “D” to an “A” or more realistically at least a “B”. ~The TIP Lady

  6. Secretary Duncan:
    Children’s education has always been a priority but the education of poverish children has been neglected. Funding early education program pre-k -3rd Grade should be encouraged in poverish neighborhoods. Children in these schools need updated textbooks and technology[science and computer foreign languages, math and of course reading [history and english]. Young children in poverish schools need healthy foods [no sugary drinks, no salty foods like chips and candy], orange and apple slices and salads and milk and bottled water. Nutrition has a lot to do with a child’s mental and physical growth. Sometimes the school lunch and breakfast is the only meal a child gets, so why not require it to be healthy.There is nothing wrong with the government getting involved because without the government involvement, certain local governments will neglect its impoverish student population. Everyone, should be a stake holder in the guaranteed of quality education for children.

  7. All of what has been recorded here is relevant and has merit; however, until we–as an American society–honor the vocational path as much as we do the collegiate one, we are doomed to repeating past failures. We also need to respect the role of teachers in the educational process. It seems everyone is an expert in what the educational process should entail because everyone went to school. That is why Boards of Education and Legislators believe they know better than those who teach and administer in schools and ultimately make those Boards and Legislators into micro-managers. Florida’s system of county-side districts (which seems to be in vogue as the way to go lately) is a sham as it encourages that micro-management and uses the supposed money-savings of consolidation of smaller entities as the be-all and end-all when all it serves to do is to remove the funding from the intended beneficiary–the student in the classroom.

  8. I agree that No Child Left Behind is a bad law. George W Bush should apologize to the nation for forcing this on our kids. Teachers told him it wouldn’t work, and he would not listen. However, the problem is that we need to get back to local control. Local teachers and parents are the only ones who should be involved in making decisions for local schools. Anyone else is simply not qualified!

    • Thank Sen. Kennedy and Pres. Bush that parents of children in failing schools were given hope. Thank them for mandates to create locally written plans to fight the apathy of local school staff willing to accept that their students just cant learn. Thank them that schools are not measured by the just the middle of a bell curve, but had to teach the children who have difficulties as well to look good. In spite of the term “Local Control” parents are often kept out.

    • And we need to march to DC for better wages for teachers, I cannot believe how lowly they are when we or someone made a choice to underpay the person who is the mom, the dad, the disciplinarian, etc. for not just one child but 12-20 or more?

    • When do we march to DC? The people we have making major decisions need to see how many people disagree with ‘those tests.’ I come from a place where we keep failing. And, I am told our teachers are paid the best in the state. Most teachers in my community care and want the best and would love the chance to do it different, Mr. Bush.

  9. In my opinion, for Secretary Duncan to be taken seriously and have any sort of meaningful legacy he must see to it that ESEA is re-authorized and changed to address the evident flaws of NCLB. It is unfortunate that he has waited six years to get to this point…

    • Secretary Duncan said
      “The nation’s most sweeping education law — the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, better known as No Child Left Behind…”

      Doesn’t that mean that they are the same? I am very confused about that. Also, I don’t understand why other comments blamed former President Bush for it, as the law was passed in 1965.

      • The original Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed in 1965, under President Lyndon Johnson, designed to provide targeted federal funds to help students in poverty. In 2001, the ESEA law was re-authorized under President George W. Bush who called it No Child Left Behind. This version expanded the reach of federal education regulations to include effects on all schools and all students. It is now several years past when it was due to be re-authorized again.

        • Anne,
          Thank you so much for explaining that to me. I have been wondering about this, without any resolution. I am happy that I returned, a month later.

          How nice to be greeted with a helpful reply! I appreciate your time, and your thoughtfulness.

  10. Regarding the comment that low expectations and overemphasis on electronic media are the problems: It would be more accurate to say that low expectations of electronic media is a problem. We don’t ask kids to work electronically to avoid boredom. Adults and students work electronically because that’s how information is acquired, processed, and shared in college and the workplace. If I left my office to do all my research in the library, submitted a report on a yellow pad, or prepared my budget on ledger paper, I would lose my job. Our failure lies in not treating modern tools with the rigor necessary to use them effectively..

    • Talbot,
      We do not issue forth at birth, like Pallas Athena, with the fully developed cognitive abilities of an adult. Nor do we acquire the ability to read, write and do arithmetic any differently now than we did 100, or 1000 years ago. Before one can master the full suite of Microsoft Outlook applications or (Open Office equivalent), one needs to be able to read, write (not merely copy and paste) and know some rudimentary mathematics.

      Gainfully employed individuals, at every level in the workplace today, did not acquire their ability to process and share information while in elementary school. Similarly, before one can effectively use financial software e.g. for preparing a budget, one must learn the basics of double-entry accounting. Ledger paper is helpful for learning, and preparation, as a didactic aid. Similarly, there is no substantive difference between using yellow ruled paper, an IBM Selectric Typewriter or Microsoft Word to write a report. The content is what matters. Typing skills, and text entry into a word processing program like MS Word are not what make you a valuable contributor in your workplace. They are requisite, but not sufficient.

      Too much emphasis on electronic media, too early, is not helpful. Human cognitive processes are no different now than they were 30 years ago.

  11. What is the federal role in education, anyway? I am grateful for the information I received from someone at NASDSE. They took the time to explain to me that it is not the federal government’s job to ENFORCE any of these laws. I am very interested in hearing why parents and educators should get behind anything at the federal level if they are going unchecked.

    • I back the federal government because they are not as easily bought by the local and state unions that purchase the school boards, and superintendents that oversee the union employees.

  12. Perhaps we should look toward the British way of educating our students. Not everyone is able to wants to go to college. So why not allow students at the high school level decide whether they want to attend college or whether they would like to start an apprenticeship program. We not only need white collar workers, we need plumbers, electricians, beauticians, etc. Make the apprenticeship program as part of the educational experience and allow students to earn credit much like college internship placements. We can’t continue to treat everyone the same and demand the same from everyone. Everyone has their skills and abilities, let’s give everyone an opportunity to benefit from the educational system.

    • Unfortunately, this historically meant that the poor and people of color are dissuaded or excluded from going to college. The ability to go to college should be seen as the floor not the ceiling for graduating from high school.

    • I absolutely agree! Employers are complaining that new hires are not self-motivated to learn. They perform a task given, then wait for the next instruction. This begins in school. Another complaint from trades-people is the lack of apprentices. Kids are encouraged and groomed to go to college as if every single career is college-oriented. This is a misconception. Statistics are formulated that show the income potential of college-educated vs. non-college-educated careers without considering the trades. The Federal Govt. needs to concentrate on our National Security and Economy and leave the Education of our children to the states.

      • Regina,
        Yes, the states do know better than the Federal government about certain things. For example, programs like 4H, Future Farmers of America and entomology identification contests were integrated into the high school curriculum where I grew up. That would not make sense for Manhattan. But just because it isn’t taught in Manhattan, doesn’t mean it should be excluded in areas of the U.S.A. where it is directly relevant to students’ interests and career paths.

        Does Common Core include vocational classes e.g. horticulture or home economics or general drafting or shop? Are schools allowed to teach any of those classes, is it permitted?

    • Agree on this one. Students from middle class families make it because they will choose one of these paths, college or career and their families can pay after high school. Others, we try to mold into a program that is not of interest and/or skill level during their high school years. They drop out of school, mentally if not physically, because we do not have the opportunity to expose them to skilled/ hands on programs in high school. What’s wrong with being a skilled-laborer? Better than a business degree and no business to run. Currently, we are filling manual labor positions with citizens of other countries because our students are exposed to one track—college. When will we ever move from cookie-cutter mentality to specialized choice for skill vs higher Ed?

    • I completely agree with this view. It’s not just with the British, but pretty much the case with most European countries. They focus on vocational courses along with college degrees, and this could help students make better career decision with regards to their education.

  13. I am glad to see that you have included students in the assessment process. Hopefully, you will get a good cross section of students.

  14. Money will not buy a good education for a child. A good education for a child will come from high expectations from the child’s parents and from his teacher. We need to go back to using textbooks and quit expecting so much from the internet and quit worrying about children being bored by having to learn. Teachers have been shamed as “old fashion” for using text books, but if children knew their text book (or 80-85% of it) they would be better than ready to go to college or to go to work.

    • Bub didn’t you use the “internet” to post your thought? Why is the internet good enough for you to use but not good enough for students?

    • David, textbooks have between 300 and 800 mistakes in them. That said, the Internet and textbooks are merely a teaching tool. Any good teacher well-educated in their content area is able to teach the subject without those tools, provided they have a scope and sequence that guides them in what the state expects the students to know. Teachers need to have the ability to decide how they will teach the student the content material.

  15. Thanks for writing Arne, I’m going to have to mull this over really carefully. I’m of the opinion that the Federal Department of Education has outlived its usefulness — still pondering this — and that it’s sucking up too much money from our state educational systems. And quite frankly I don’t think very highly of many ‘curricula standards’ and those damned tests.
    ‘Education’ seems to have been devolved into ‘processing’ children with formulae and there seems to be less and less of the humanities, reading, music and art, those things that make for the well rounded, mind with critical thinking skills. This is what a democratic nation needs. We seem to have sacrificed those things to the God of technology. So, I’m going to have to ponder this op-ed before I ‘swallow’ it. Education is about preparing the citizens of the future, if corporations want well-trained workers let them offer on-the-job training… then they’ll have some ‘skin in the game’ and not be sucking up my tax money for their private benefit.
    Peace and grace to you Arne and the folks who care about kids and education.

  16. Role of federal government…. it cannot shirk its role of ensuring that schools and students meet the high bar that prepares them for the real world. History shows that, without some kind of accountability, states and districts do not always meet the needs of the most vulnerable students… CURRENT example – my son. A District psycho-educational evaluation supports superior IQ scores for stem subjects – abstract reasoning and problem solving. A state and school district fails to find his dyslexia eligible for support despite pediatric medical diagnosis, private independent evaluation assessment and pediatric neurologist referral. This state is Florida. The school district is Broward County, 6th largest in the nation. There are many like my son in a state where k-2 prescreening for the most common reading disorder in the world is not provided, where funding for special education ranks us at 3rd from the bottom of 50 states, where High school students whom meet a State Comprehensive Assessment passing score of 3 face remediation courses in postsecondary education to access the rigors of higher academic curriculum.

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