President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) into law on January 8, 2002, declaring a new era in U.S. public education. The legislation enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support in the post-September 11, 2001, context. Since then, support has eroded and the policy has been criticized on many fronts.
While NCLB is revolutionary in some respects, it also contributes to a long history of attempts to address educational disparities evident in U.S. public schools. These disparities—also referred to as the “achievement gap”—show white and Asian students generally outperforming their African American and Latino/a counterparts and students from wealthier communities outperforming those from poorer ones. The root cause of this “gap” has been variously attributed to poverty, racism, discrimination, inequitable resource distribution, poorly managed schools, unqualified teachers, and low expectations.
NCLB reauthorized and renamed legislation that had been in place since 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Under ESEA, federal resources were funneled into economically disadvantaged school districts for compensatory educational services. Education was seen as a tool for combating poverty and diminishing institutional barriers.
A fundamental shift in thinking is traceable to a report entitled “A Nation at Risk” issued in 1983 during the Reagan administration. The report alleged that U.S. public schools were tolerating mediocrity and urged states to take action. It shifted the focus from “inputs” (such as resources) and began to focus on “outputs,” which placed emphasis on testing to ensure that performance standards were being met. Funding was linked to higher expectations and greater accountability. What followed was a “standards and testing” movement.
President Bush referred to the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” and NCLB targeted expectations. The original legislation rested on four major pillars: stronger accountability, more local freedom, proven methods, and choices for parents.
Stronger accountability rests on mandatory testing in reading, math, and science to measure achievement and provide evidence of progress. In addition to these annual measures, NCLB required universal proficiency in reading and math by 2012. Tests would determine whether schools and school districts were making adequate yearly progress (AYP). States must disaggregate their test data and report the progress of subgroups by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status as well as by groups with special needs, including students with disabilities and those with limited English language proficiency. Schools must then demonstrate AYP for each subgroup.
Schools and school districts that do not meet AYP standards for 2 consecutive years are labeled “in need of improvement.” For schools so designated, a series of progressive sanctions and remedial remedies are introduced. These include the opportunity to attend another school or to receive supplemental tutoring or remedial educational services. If schools continue to fail, they must take corrective action likely to produce meaningful change, and, finally, if failure is ongoing they must design and implement a restructuring plan.
More local freedom rests on notions of local control and greater flexibility. Maximizing local control is part of a broader Republican agenda to delegate authority for social welfare to state and local governments. Under NCLB, states have flexibility to manage federal funds and to shift funding streams based on program preferences.
Proven methods refer to the idea that programs should be grounded in scientifically based research and reflect best practices. This is part of a much larger public movement known as “evidence-based practice.” Considerable controversy exists over what constitutes “best evidence” or proper “science.” In addition, this section of NCLB mandates that only highly qualified teachers (HQTs) be hired in core subject areas (reading, math, language arts, English, foreign languages, science, civics and government, economics, history, art, and geography), but it defines highly qualified in a prescriptive manner. Critics contest the theory that enhancing teacher credentials results in better teaching, which in turn translates into improved student achievement.
Finally, choices for parents are evident in provisions relating to failing schools or those deemed to be persistently dangerous. Parents may choose to send their child to another, higher-performing school, including a charter school. Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of local school districts and are supervised by state or state-authorized bodies pursuant to a state statutorily defined performance contract.
Some criticisms of NCLB include fears that high-stakes testing leads to teaching to the test and will result in constricting curriculum to subjects that are the focus of accountability standards; that both the content and quality of state tests are problematic; that motivating schools and districts through threats and punishments is not effective; that measuring schools is being confused with fixing them; that achieving 100 percent proficiency by 2012 is unrealistic; that provisions of NCLB are uniquely problematic for rural districts; and that school choice will actually lead to segregation and stratification of public schools. Critics also charge that NCLB is an unfunded mandate that imposes burdens without providing adequate resources. Others argue that no amount of funding can correct bad policy. There are additional controversial provisions embedded in NCLB—such as those permitting the U.S. military access to student information for recruiting purposes—that have received critical attention.
Interestingly, the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), a long-standing child advocacy organization, used the slogan “Leave No Child Behind” to refer to a comprehensive and progressive legislative agenda for promoting child-friendly policy. The CDF advocates reform that would provide poor and minority children a Healthy Start, Head Start, Fair Start, Safe Start, and Moral Start. The CDF’s Leave No Child Behind agenda goes well beyond the limited education policy articulated in the No Child Left Behind Act.
- Hess, Frederick M. and Chester E. Finn. 2004. Leaving No Child Behind? Options for Kids in Failing Schools. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan.
- Hess, Frederick M. and Michael J. Petrilli. 2006. No Child Left Behind. New York: Peter Lang.
- Meier, Deborah and George Wood, eds. 2004. Many Children Left Behind. Boston: Beacon Press.
- S. Department of Education. (https://www2.ed.gov/nclb/landing.jhtml).
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