Perspectives on No Child Left Behind, 10 Years After Its Signing

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Rachel Carson offers after-school and Saturday tutoring to prep students for state tests.

For all its admirable intentions and the measurable gains it has produced, a decade after George W. Bush’s signature education overhaul became law, the consensus among policymakers and educators is grim: The good that’s come of No Child Left Behind no longer outweighs the bad.

For an article in this week’s issue of TIME, now available online to subscribers, I talked to a wide range of current and former administration officials, teachers, students, reformers, union leaders, experts and other education insiders to get their thoughts on the law’s complex legacy and uncertain future. What follows is a brief tour of their perspectives.

Arne Duncan, Obama’s Secretary of Education

The world has really changed in significant and encouraging ways. Because of what we’ve learned through No Child Left Behind, both the good and the bad, we’re much smarter now as a country.

There’s just so much broken in the law now that I actually think it’s become an impediment to progress.

(MORE: Exclusive: George W. Bush Talks to TIME About No Child Left Behind)

Margaret Spellings, former Secretary of Education, who served under George W. Bush from 2005 to 2009 and helped implement many parts of NCLB

Everything from head lice to childhood obesity to layoffs has been laid at the feet of No Child Left Behind. I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what the law does and does not require.

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association teachers union

For all the good intentions, No Child Left Behind really missed the mark. We need some major course correction. It makes me sad to think about how many teachers have only taught under NCLB and don’t know what it was like before.

Kati Haycock, president of Education Trust, a non-profit education policy group dedicated to closing the achievement gap

There is no question that if NCLB went away our lowest performing schools would still be under some pressure to improve, but how aggressive remains to be seen. Even under NCLB, states haven’t taken closing the achievement gap as seriously as they should have.

(MORE: Can Anyone End No Child Left Behind?)

Jay Greene, head of the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas and fellow in education policy at the George W. Bush Institute

It’s not as if we cured cancer, but we made progress.

Evan Bayh, former Democratic Senator from Indiana

Just because it’s too hard, inconvenient and controversial for us we aren’t going to do what it takes to make sure kids get a good education? We’re just going to throw up our hands and walk away? That’s shameful.

Lidya Etissa, a seventh grade student at Rachel Carson Middle School

If I hadn’t passed the [state tests] I would have cried and thought, ‘Why are people smarter than me? Why am I not smarter?’ Sometimes I cry because there is so much pressure. I do try to do my best, but sometimes I get an answer wrong.

(MORE: Andrew Rotherham: In Defense of No Child Left Behind)

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee

No Child Left Behind was always an extreme intervention of Washington into local schools. It was more Washington influence than Republicans liked, but they wanted to support George W. Bush. Over the past 10 years we’ve learned that there’s no need for Washington to do what state and local governments can do better.

Cheryl Weaver, director of student services at Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon, Virginia

I don’t think the assessment should be one-size-fits-all. Every child is different. It’s like saying to a young mother that every child will walk at 10 months—we know that’s not true, every child will walk when they’re ready.

Chester Finn, president of the non-profit Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank

We’re dealing with pain caused by our failure to reach an unattainable goal. Shame on Congress, shame on the White House for knowing [NCLB] isn’t working well and not solving the problems.

Rep. George Miller, a Democrat from California, who helped draft NCLB

People spent a lot of time figuring out how to get around the law,instead of educating kids. They worked to make this law acceptable for adults, rather than educating kids. They wanted to figure out how to make it look like they were doing better, rather than educating kids. We can get cold fusion, but we can’t get fourth graders to read at the fourth grade level—apparently, that’s the hardest thing to do in America.

(SPECIAL: What Makes a School Great)

Jose Baires, an eighth grade student at Rachel Carson Middle School

I feel kind of scared a little bit about the test because when you take it, you might fail. I really like to study and all that, but then you get scared.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union

There was this tremendous hope that [No Child Left Behind] would work. But when it started not working you started seeing the powers that be immediately blame teachers and unions, as opposed to looking at whether the law was correct. NCLB created a terrible attitude toward teachers. It gets old to blame the people who are actually closest to the kids for a law that just didn’t work as well as anyone wanted it to.

Charles Barone, who worked as a Congressional aid under Rep. Miller and as the deputy staff director for the House Education and Labor Committee during the Bush Administration; he is now director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform

I remember when NCLB passed the chief of staff came up to me and said, ‘Congrats, you did a good thing, but I also offer my condolences because from here on out, you and this law will be blamed for every problem in education.’

Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa

I remember sitting down with President Bush and Rep. Boehner and hearing about all the great things NCLB would do. But I remember thinking, this will only work if we really agree to put the money in. We had agreed on a funding stream for NCLB, but we never even met it the first year. How would NCLB have performed if we had put that extra $60-70 billion into it? That was a grave mistake.

(MORE: George W. Bush Looks Back on No Child Left Behind)

Dhruv Gupta, an eighth grade student at Rachel Carson Middle School

These tests affect not just us, but the teachers. If I failed I’d be thinking maybe other students failed too and then maybe the teacher would be affected.

Sandy Kress, former senior adviser on education to President Bush

No Child Left Behind was born out of the idea that education ought to be run like a business. We ought to care about it, have standards and measures, and changed based on how we perform. Ten years later, I’m proudest of the transparency. We have a far clearer picture now of what’s going on in our schools—who’s strong, who’s weak, how and why.

Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado

The most important thing NCLB accomplished was revealing the huge disparities in educational outcomes for children in our country, particularly children living in poverty. Beyond that it didn’t do much that was constructive and our schools are not materially better than they were 10 years ago. It identified the gaps, but it did not put in place many tools that were helpful to fix the schools.

Check out the full story here, and don’t miss Andy Rotherham’s exclusive interview with former President George W. Bush:

In some circles, punching No Child Left Behind is a way to basically say, I’m against Big Government. In fact, No Child Left Behind is a way to promote efficient government.

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Kayla Webley is a Staff Writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kaylawebley, on Facebook or on Google+.

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