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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Marking a half-century of near-constant change in the American education system

LBJ Library photo by Frank Wolfe
President Lyndon Johnson at the signing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on April 11, 1965.

Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon Johnson sat down at a table in Texas to sign one of the most important pieces of education legislation in the history of the U.S. You may never have heard of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act by name, but it undoubtedly affected your life.

Like most pieces of landmark legislation, the ESEA had many components, and those components have been amended over time. But at its heart, the ESEA was about using the power (and the purse) of the federal government to create more equity among the nation's schools. Johnson conceived it as part of his War on Poverty. It also became a key milestone in the civil rights movement. 

Johnson signed the law outside a schoolhouse where he had been a student. In his remarks that day, he did not mince words about what he hoped the law could achieve:

As the son of a tenant farmer, I know that education is only valid in its passport from poverty, the only valid passport. As a former teacher – and I hope a future one – I have great expectations of what this law will mean for all our young people. As president of the United States, I believe deeply no law I have signed or will ever sign means more to the future of America.

And if you've never heard of the ESEA by name, you might know it by the name it was given in 2002, during its most recent reauthorization: The No Child Left Behind Act. 

But even that is just one of the many aliases of ESEA over the years. The law has been amended and revised so many times, EdWeek noted in 2005, Lyndon Johnson would barely recognize it. In its first 15 years alone, the ESEA was revised four times, according to a history of the law written by educational researchers Janet Thomas and Kevin Brady.

In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan scaled back both the funding and the goals for the ESEA, pushing for states to take on their own efforts to improve schools. But by 1988, a new push was underway, according to Thomas and Brady

In 1988, Title I was amended and for the first time began requiring states to document and define levels of academic achievement for their disadvantaged children (Jennings, 2001). Public school districts across the nation were required to annually assess student academic progress on the basis of standardized test scores. Consequently, receipt of ESEA funds began to be based on the achievement of educationally deprived children.

So, if you've been going along, blaming George W. Bush for all the testing required in today's schools, you've got the wrong Bush. The start of the testing era in the American education system began long before No Child Left Behind, and it was George H.W. Bush who helped push it along. 

Still, when NCLB became law in 2002, it was another huge shift for America's schools. With this latest reauthorization (and rebranding) of the ESEA, schools not only were required to test students more frequently, but they faced sanctions if their students' test results didn't improve over time. Parents across America were introduced to the phrase "Adequate Yearly Progress." Schools that failed to show AYP would be forced to come up with a plan to change the situation. If things didn't turn around within five years, the school would be forced to restructure, or face a state takeover. 

Within 12 years of when President Bush signed No Child Left Behind into effect, all students would be expected to test at grade level ... in case you missed it, the goal was not achieved.

These requirements were controversial for a lot of reasons you've probably already heard, so we won't rehash them here. But the goal with NCLB was the same as with the original passage of ESEA: to ensure that all students had a chance at a quality education. NCLB actually set a timeline for achieving that goal. Within 12 years of when President George W. Bush signed it into effect, all students would be expected to test at grade level. Not most students. Not some students. All students. 

That big deadline in NCLB quietly passed by last school year. And, in case you missed it, the goal was not achieved. 

In 2012, when it was obvious to everyone that states would not reach the goal of getting all students to grade level, President Barack Obama introduced the latest big change in federal educational policy. Rather than threaten states with a stick, Obama's Department of Education offered a carrot. The new program, named Race to the Top, offered states a waiver from the accountability requirements of NCLB, but only if those states agreed to reforms approved by the federal Department of Education. 

One of the possible reforms states could consider: Adopting new Common Core State Standards. The development of Common Core started long before Race to the Top, and it wasn't a federal effort. But the federal Department of Education did give states an incentive to adopt the standardsas part of their waiver application process. 

This latest evolution in President Johnson's landmark education law is only a few years old. Race to the Top launched in 2012. Most states implemented Common Core standards only last year. 

But the American education system is already hurtling toward its next big change. 

"As every teacher and principal will tell you, ESEA, now known as No Child Left Behind, is long overdue for repairs. It is broken and it is wildly out-of-date."

This morning, Department of Education secretary Arne Duncan gave a speech to mark the 50th anniversary of Congress' vote on the ESEA. He stood under a mural of Martin Luther King Jr. as he talked about the law's impact on civil rights in America. He made a pitch for a new reauthorization of ESEA that's currently being considered in Congress. 

"As every teacher and principal will tell you, ESEA, now known as No Child Left Behind, is long overdue for repairs," Duncan said. "It is broken and it is wildly out-of-date."

U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray have led a rare, bipartisan effort to rewrite the ESEA. They released their 600-page proposal just two days ago. The Washington Post reports there's "cautious optimism" the proposal could go somewhere. If it does, it could once again reshape the federal government's role in education. 

But after 50 years of course corrections, has the system really improved? 

During his speech this morning, Duncan offered a bullish assessment. Today's black and Latino nine-year-olds score about as well on math tests as 13-year-old black and Latino students in the 1970s, Duncan said. Graduation rates for minority students are up, and dropout rates are down, according to Duncan. 

Despite these gains, though, America's schools are as divided as ever before, not just along racial lines, but class as well. 

Credit Sean Reardon
From "The Widening Academic Achievement Gap Between the Rich and the Poor: New Evidence and Possible Explanations," by Stanford researcher Sean Reardon.

In 2011, Stanford researcher Sean Reardon documented that the achievement gap between students from low-income families and high-income families is at its highest level on record. 

"I think it's important to note that this widening gap hasn't happened because the U.S. education system has gotten worse," Reardon told me in an interview. 

He echoed Duncan's claims about math scores. 

"But in math, everyone's test scores have been going up," Reardon said. "It's just they haven't been going up at the same rate." 

Fifty years ago, when Lyndon Johnson sat down at a table to sign the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, he was hoping the new law would help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds catch up to those who already started at the top. That was the entire purpose for getting the federal government involved in an education system which, up until that point, had been almost entirely run at the local level. 

In the past 50 years, the federal government's strategy has shifted many times, and not always for the better. Each time we are told, as Arne Duncan said again this morning, the current education system is broken. Each time we are promised the new changes will fix it.

And after 50 years, a lot has changed. Nearly everything but this: America's schools still produce unequal results. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.