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One of the most-important statements America has made about stemming achievement gaps came in 2001 with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. More than any piece of federal or state legislation before then, No Child clearly stated that the nation would no longer tolerate  As noted in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, the law’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions helped shine a light on the low quality of instruction and curricula provided to poor and minority children in both urban and suburban districts, while its focus on proficiency and graduation rates finally made clear that high-quality education and school completion should be the norm and not the exception. But now, Congress and the Obama administration both seem bent on wrecking the very accountability provisions that have spurred the first steps in systemic reform. What all the camps are essentially doing, no matter the protests from some quarters, is a retreat from the promise to stem achievement gaps and help all children succeed.

In this Voices of the Dropout Nation, Sandy Kress, the mastermind behind the authoring of No Child, succinctly discusses what is really at stake for stemming achievement gaps and ending the cultures of low expectations that have long plagued American public education. (Kress also delves into the gains made as a result of accountability in a piece he has written for National Journal’s Education Experts.) Read, consider, and demand better from federal leaders.

Tolerating low levels of educational achievement among low income children and children of color in our country should no longer be tolerable. It was a powerful, bipartisan, moral commitment to that basic principle that brought together the coalition that created and passed the No Child Left Behind Act a decade ago.

At its core, No Child  said two basic things. The first: A school where privileged students achieve at or above grade level but where disadvantaged students are allowed to remain below grade is in need of improvement. The second? Such a school must take concrete steps, increasing in intensity, until all subgroups reach grade level.

Here’s the sad but real truth today: No Child is unpopular – purely and simply – because it meant what it said.

In years past, before the era of accountability, judgments about school effectiveness, if they were made at all, were made generally irrespective of whether African-American, Hispanic, and low income students were learning at grade level. For most schools where these students were not successful, there were no consequences or required improvement.

There are powerful forces that want to return to that past. They mask their real motives by harping on the flaws of No Child. But since the flaws of No Child can be easily fixed, I want to suggest that the ire the law has aroused is due to a far more basic and troubling cause: At bottom, the forces of the status quo will be satisfied only when they can shed policy of real accountability for the success of disadvantaged subgroups.

And so, for people who care deeply about the education of all children, the question they should pose to test any legislation that might replace No Child is really simple. And it is this: does the bill insist that all schools that receive federal funding educate disadvantaged students at least to grade level, and, if not, face consequences to improve?

No law should replace No Child until the answer to that question is “yes”.

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