“No Child Left Behind” is the name of the current federal law regulating K-12 public education. It passed in 2001 with overwhelming bi-partisan support, and was the sixth reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.
Two Achievement Gaps
NCLB set a bold new direction for federal government funding of public education. For the first time federal law held states strictly accountable to deliver higher student achievement in their public schools. Congress made it clear that despite billions in federal spending, an unacceptable achievement gap persisted between low-income and affluent students and between white and minority students. Furthermore, the gap between America and top-ranking nations on international test scores was not closing. NCLB was enacted to close these gaps.
To fulfill America’s promise of access to an equal education, and to close America’s global achievement gap, NCLB established an unprecedented accountability system. All public schools were required to make “Adequate Yearly Progress” on benchmarks of student achievement, and to publish an annual report card on each school’s progress, or lack of progress.
Schools that fell short of adequate yearly progress would be labeled “failing” and would face increasing punitive measures. If a school was failing, Congress gave parents the choice to remove their children from the school and send them to more successful schools. Putting “choice” into the school system, it was argued, forced schools to improve student outcomes or risk losing them to better performing schools. To give parents even more choices, NCLB increased opportunities for qualified organizations to start charter schools.
State Standards and Tests
NCLB required each state to create high standards for reading and math curriculum and to develop tests to measure if students achieved those standards at a basic, proficient, or advanced level.
Implausibly, the law mandated that all students in America score at the proficient level in both math and reading by 2014. They reasoned if not all children, then some would be left behind.
Highly Qualified Teachers
In addition to requiring higher standards, new assessments, annual testing, Adequate Yearly Progress, and choice, NCLB also mandated that every student have a “Highly Qualified Teacher” in every math and reading classroom. Because low performing schools were more likely to be staffed with uncertified teachers, the law intended to rectify that inequality of access to effective teachers.
Why is NCLB So Poorly Regarded?
Over the ten years NCLB has been in effect, accountability and choice have undoubtedly increased, but these measures did not produce the levels of improvement in student achievement Congress believed would result. Over the years it became clear that some of NCLB provisions actually created perverse incentives that caused teaching to the test, encouraged cutting back arts and history, led to cheating scandals, and in some cases even motivated states to actually lower their academic standards.
Educators point to the mandate that all students be proficient by 2014 as evidence that legislators were naively out of touch with the complex realities teachers face in classrooms every day.
When NCLB is Reauthorized Will These Problems Be Fixed?
Though NCLB’s accountability system didn’t close the achievement gaps as hoped, it has produced massive amounts of valuable test data and pockets of success that will inform efforts going forward. By now, all politicians agree that NCLB needs to be fixed. Of course, they don’t all agree on the best way to fix it.
In his 2011 State of the Union speech, President Obama made investment in American education a priority. Senate leaders announced plans to move reauthorization of NCLB through the Senate by the end of summer. There is bi-partisan support to fix the bill, and debate about how to fix it is expected to start in early summer.
Rep. George Miller, a drafter of the 2001 bill, called No Child Left Behind the “most tainted brand in America.” Because most legislators agree with him, expect the reauthorization to get a new name.
To learn about the pros and cons of NCLB’s policies, check out the five education books listed on PCM’s Top 10 Books for Parents: Whatever It Takes, The Knowledge Deficit, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Disrupting Class, and The Flat World of Education.
To read a concise statement of the Obama Administration plans for fixing NCLB, read Sec. Duncan’s statement given at the Senate Committee Hearing on the Reauthorization of NCLB in March 2010. Or, view Duncan’s 45-minute testimony in its entirety.
For non-partisan citizen information on NCLB, see Public Education Network’s “Everything You Wanted to Know About NCLB.”