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A Look at How American Legislation has Changed Education in the Last 15 Years

By The SHARE Team
Students in Classroom

Our educational system has always been affected by legislation and at no time more profoundly than during the last 15 years. While the early part of this decade and a half saw some change, in the years from 2000 to the present, the changes were more fundamental. During those years, falling tests scores became a national concern. In response, far-reaching and groundbreaking laws were passed in an effort to revamp the educational system in the U.S.

Renewed commitment

From 1997 through 2000, most of the educational legislation passed by Congress dealt with the renewal of older laws that were in danger of timing out. While these laws did include some minor changes, they did not affect the daily educational experience of most American students.

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments – In 1997, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was re-authorized and amended. IDEA was originally based on the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) which required that all school districts provide a suitable and appropriate education for all students regardless of handicapping conditions. The 1997 changes included a requirement for both state and district-wide assessments of handicapped children, as well as a provision that each child’s regular teacher be part of the team assessing his or her progress.
  • The Workforce Investment Act – Passed by Congress in 1998, the purpose of the WIA was job training and education to increase employment rates and decrease welfare dependence. While it focused on both adults and school-age participants, it also included the Family Literacy Act which focused on strengthening the reading skills of participants of all ages.

Big changes

Starting with the election of President George W. Bush and later, President Barack Obama, the educational system in the U.S. underwent some major modifications. Not all the laws delivered on their promise to improve the education of our nation’s youths and most were not without controversy.

  • No Child Left Behind. Passed into law in 2001, this act required the individual states to develop and implement a program of basic-skills assessments. These assessments had to be tracked in order for the states to receive federal educational funding. While the idea was to document actual learning, and, hopefully, remedy deficits, the program has not been completely successful. A decade after its implementation, an article in USA Today points out that critics of the law see it as having “rigid and unrealistic expectations” and emphasizing testing over actual learning.
  • American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009. This act did not change educational policy, but did funnel nearly $100 billion in funding into the American educational system. Almost half of the money allocated by the ARRA was earmarked for local school districts to be used for modernization, building repairs and to prevent teacher layoffs.
  • Common Core State Standards. The latest and perhaps most sweeping legislative mandate to educators is President Barack Obama’s plan to implement, by 2014, a “common core” of educational standards. While it does not establish a specific curriculum for the states to follow, it does specify what students at each grade level are required to know. Like No Child Left Behind, the CCSS is meant to address falling test scores. While some critics are already questioning its possible effectiveness, it is being supported by such national organizations as the PTA (The Parent Teacher Association). A quote from their website states that the common standards will “set clear expectations to help parents understand what their children should be able to know.” And teachers at every grade level are already embracing the program. On her blog, “You Picked Me,” kindergarten teacher Laura Armstrong-Martinez recently posted tips to help other teachers make the Common Core Standards “accessible to their kindergarten students.”

The educational system in the U.S. is a work in progress. Every piece of legislation passed holds the potential for moving the system forward or sliding it back. Each new law must pass the test of time before it can be pronounced a success or a failure.

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