Obama Announces End Of ‘No Child Left Behind’ Era: Education Is More Than Tests

One of the worst legacy of George W. Bush’s presidency is also one of least talked about, but American children feel its effects every day. Bush’s sweeping educational reforms known as “No Child Left Behind” has left in its wake a dysfunctional school system, demoralized teachers, and stressed out, over-tested children. Unsurprisingly, educators have long been saying that the “teaching to the test” mentality of No Child Left Behind is causing serious damage to the nation’s educational aspirations.

All the way back in 2006, educators were frantically warning the Bush administration that an obsession with test scores over other measures of success was a recipe for disaster.

Education sociologist David Labaree once posited that an overreliance on testing causes students to care only enough to ask, “Will this be on the test?” NCLB seems to have transferred this problem from students to teachers, who may well approach teaching with the same attitude: “Whatever is not on the test is not worth knowing, and whatever is on the test need be learned only in the superficial manner that is required to achieve a passing grade” (Labaree, 1997, p. 46). Under NCLB, teachers feel great pressure to focus their energies solely on preparing students to excel on standardized tests.

And unlike Bush’s recession, No Child Left Behind seemed stubbornly persistent well into the Obama administration. Even in recent years, policymakers have hardly seemed motivated to redirect education away from the nearest multiple choice answer sheet. Until now.

In an announcement which is sure to cause celebration among America’s educators, the Obama administration called for an end of the era of over-testing and back to more sensible, informed approaches to education. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan didn’t mince words.

“I can’t tell you how many conversations I’m in with educators who are understandably stressed and concerned about an overemphasis on testing in some places and how much time testing and test prep are taking from instruction.

It’s important that we’re all honest with ourselves. At the federal, state and local level, we have all supported policies that have contributed to the problem in implementation. We can and will work with states, districts and educators to help solve it.”

While Duncan admitted testing isn’t going away completely – it’s still necessary to have some standardized rubric for ensuring children are where they need to be – the role of testing in the classroom should be greatly diminished. In a recent survey by the Council of the Great City Schools, researchers found that the average student will take around 112 mandatory standardized tests during their school career. With so many tests, it’s a wonder that any student makes it through with even a speck of passion for learning left. To combat this test fatigue the proposal the White House sent to Congress specified that in order to reduce “over-testing” school districts should ensure that no more than 2 percent of classroom time is devoted to taking tests.

For teachers who have long been complaining that their lesson plans no longer allow for inspired teaching and instead feel like an endless bullet list of test questions, giving them their classroom back (or at least 98 percent of it) could be huge.

In a way, Obama isn’t just reversing Bush’s actions, but his own. During his first term, Obama seemed content to simply continue along with Bush’s education plans, despite signs that they weren’t working. In the last few years, things have changed. Perhaps Obama was informed by his experience watching his own daughters go through school, or maybe enough educators spoke out, but whatever the reason, Obama is showing signs of a radical new approach towards education. Holistic, teacher-inspired, and child focused, this new way of doing things couldn’t be more different than the No Child Left Behind era.

Feature image by Pete Souza/White House via New York Times