That law failed to bring change because it mandated improvement without guidance as to how to make things better.
Under some circumstances, this strategy would work. If educators know how to improve student outcomes and just aren’t doing it, then all they need is a kick in the pants to get them going. Alternatively, the kick in the pants might get some feckless educators to buckle down and figure out how to improve outcomes. Neither turned out to be the case in 2001.
Most educators were at least pretty good and most were hard-working. Sure, there were (and are) some goof-offs and knuckleheads amongst the several million U.S. teachers, and it’s in everyone’s interest—even the teacher’s unions--for those teachers to go.
Dan Willingham is a cognitive scientist that writes a lot on how to bring our scientific understanding of how people learn and how the mind works to the K-12 classroom. I'm reading his book, " Why Don't Students Like School?" right now, and would recommend it to just about any K-12 teacher.
In this post, he does a great job of describing why NCLB has failed in the past - and why it will unlikely change with Obama's plan. The simple answer: It identifies problems, but doesn't provide solutions.
There are some initiatives to innovate in schools (like the i3 funding from the Department of Ed), but in general, innovation in education is a slow process. Last time I checked, schools are still struggling to get sufficient photocopiers to print out paper assignments for students.
Willingham doesn't offer a solution in this post (but will next week in a follow-up). My thoughts on this are that the first steps are to change (1) teacher recruitment and training, and (2) leadership in schools. A big barrier to this is that we don't have a good formula for what makes a good teacher and what makes a good school leader. We're starting to answer those questions, but quizzically, we still don't have a solid answer...