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.
Yet after a decade on the books, President George W. Bush's most hyped domestic accomplishment — which mandates that all students read and perform math on grade level by 2014 — has become a symbol to many of federal overreach and Congress' inability to fix something that's clearly flawed.
The law forced schools to confront the reality that many kids simply weren't learning, but it's 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, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. 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. In this election year, there appears to be little political will for compromise.
Critics say the law carries unrealistic expectations that put too much of an emphasis on tests for reading and math at the expense of a more well-rounded education.
Frustrated by the congressional inaction, President Barack Obama told states last fall they could seek a waiver around certain 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 do act.
The law requires annual testing. Districts must keep and publish data showing how subgroups of students perform. Schools that don't meet requirements for two years or longer face increasingly tough consequences, from busing children to higher performing schools to offering tutoring and replacing staff.
Scores on a national assessment show significant gains in math among the fourth- and eighth-graders, with Hispanic and African American fourth-graders performing approximately two grade levels higher today than when the law was passed, said Mark Schneider, the former U.S. commissioner of education statistics who now serves as vice president at the American Institutes for Research. As the years went by, however, the growth has largely plateaued, he said.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former education secretary, said he's hopeful Congress will do what's right and update No Child Left Behind, which became due for renewal in 2007.
"What we ought to do is set new realistic goals for it so that schools and schools can have those kinds of goals, and most importantly, we need to move out of Washington and back to states' and local communities' decisions about whether schools and teachers are succeeding or failing," said Alexander, R-Tenn.