Education Reform

Litigation, legislation, and policy changes have driven school reform for the past few decades, particularly in connection with measuring student progress, as well as bullying and the development of alternatives to public schools. Many of these education reform efforts have occurred on the state level. For example, all states except Montana have enacted anti-bullying laws, and 12 states include a criminal sanction for bullies in their laws. Charter school laws, allowing the creation of charter schools throughout the state, have been enacted in 42 states and the District of Columbia. The specific content of the state charter school law affects how successful any given charter school in that state is.

States also led the Standards and Accountability Movement of the 1990s, which led to the creation and writing of Common Core State Standards. These are standards outlining what students are expected to know or do at each grade level. Assessment measures were also created cooperatively by states and implemented at the state level to measure whether students meet the Common Core State Standards.

The federal government became involved in education reform over the past two decades through education law and initiatives like the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 and the Race to the Top Fund. Title VI, Title IX, and various laws dealing with discrimination in education have also resulted in significant changes at the national level.

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001

The NCLB is the most recent iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which is the largest source of federal spending on elementary and secondary education. NCLB covers numerous federal education programs, including the annual assessment and measurement of student progress in reading and mathematics. It required school districts to make sure all students were proficient in grade-level math and reading by 2014, and to make adequate yearly progress towards a grade-appropriate goal. States were required to test students in science once in certain grades. The test results needed to be publicly reported, both in the aggregate and for certain subgroups such as English language learners and major racial and ethnic groups.

In 2011, states were permitted to request flexibility in meeting some of the NCLB requirements. Forty-three states and Washington D.C. applied for a waiver from the NCLB targets and were granted waivers. States asking for waivers had to demonstrate they would implement certain reforms to their academic standards, assessments, and accountability systems. These waivers permitted states to also opt out of mandatory interventions for school districts that failed to meet requirements to staff only highly qualified teachers in local schools. States that do not have waivers are still required to follow the mandates of NCLB.

Race to the Top Fund

The Race to the Top Fund is a federal government initiative that was developed in order to spur educational reform in elementary and secondary schools in all states. Through the initiative, states were awarded points to create plans that addressed four key areas:  the development of rigorous standards and better assessments, the adoption of better data systems to measure student progress and give teachers and parents information, supporting teachers and school leaders, and allocating increased emphasis and resources for more rigorous interventions for the lowest-performing schools. Over $4 billion has been dedicated so far to 19 states that created plans to address these four key areas of education reform in grades K-12. Thirty-four states modified their laws or policies to facilitate changes under this initiative, and 48 states have cooperated to create a set of college and career-ready standards.