The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) had its origin in the July 1998 U.S Department of Education rule called the principles of effectiveness. This rule, which was passed in light of a spike in youth drug use in the 1990s, required school districts receiving state funding to plan and evaluate their drug prevention and response programs that had previously been enacted under the Safe and Drug-Free Schools program. Schools were called upon to conduct needs assessments, establish measurable goals and objectives, and implement and evaluate research-based prevention programs. NCLB expanded these principles to emphasize accountability in education. Schools were to achieve five specific goals: (1) achievement in reading and math; (2) English mastery for students with low proficiency; (3) recruitment and training of highly qualified teachers; (4) establishment of school environments that are drug and violence free; and (5) graduation of all students. School districts received a variety of grants to help them achieve these goals.
To assist school districts, a list of authorized activities was prepared and provided to all grantees. It included some programs that had previously been listed in the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, such as character education and peer mediation. The list did not include some programs that had previously been recommended, including Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.). Added to the list of approved activities were school resource officers, drug testing, locker searches, and alternative education programs. The list did not identify specific curricula.
A review of schools’ responses to NCLB found that only 33% had implemented evidence-based curricula. This number does include some very large districts, however; thus 45% of students had been reached by this effort. The biggest barrier was funding, as school districts insist NCLB is underfunded. During the presidential administration of George W. Bush, student drug testing was emphasized, but many school districts did not implement it because it was too costly. Under NCLB, students enrolled in a school labeled “persistently dangerous” had the right to transfer to a safer school in the district. Although this sounded like a good idea, it gave schools an additional incentive to underreport school crime and violence.
Part of the impetus behind NCLB, which was passed during President George W. Bush’s administration and was generally considered a bipartisan effort, was the fear that the United States was lagging behind in international comparisons of student performance. Some civil libertarians even praised NCLB for its focus on poor students, students of color, and those with limited English proficiency. Critics contended that instead of ensuring accountability and high-quality education, the act should be renamed “No Child Left Untested,” because it placed far too much emphasis on high-stakes testing. Given that the United States has the most inequitable education system in the industrialized world, where many students attempt to learn in crumbling classrooms with outdated textbooks, the focus on testing means resources cannot be allocated to other necessary areas. Instead, schools are “dumbing down” their curricula, teaching to the test and not for critical thinking, and reducing students’ opportunities in the arts, physical education, and other areas of interest so that they can better prepare students to pass standardized tests. Schools that do not make adequately yearly progress (AYP) are labeled as failing and receive less funding.
This capitalist model might work well in other institutions, but in education critics contend it has resulted in the removal of funding from the schools that need it most. By spring 2006, more than 10,000 schools had been placed on the “needs improvement” list. Schools that miss AYP for four years are required to either replace all school staff related to the failure, put in place a new curriculum, decrease management authority of the school, appoint outside experts to advise them on the running of the school, extend either the school year or the school day, or restructure the internal organization of the school. After five years of failing to meet AYP, districts are required to either reopen as a charter school, replace all or most of their staff, contract with a private entity to run the school, institute other significant and approved governance and staffing changes, or turn over operation of the school to the state. Critics maintain that NCLB is simply a tool of conservatives in their effort to dismantle public education.
Additionally, the emphasis on test scores has created incentives for schools to rid themselves of students who are not performing well or are otherwise problematic. Suspensions and expulsions have risen dramatically since 1999, and critics contend NCLB is one of the reasons. Young men of color–in particular, African American males–have been disproportionately impacted. by these trends. A 2006 study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University found that NCLB had not improved reading or math achievement, nor had it narrowed the achievement gap.
While campaigning for the presidency, Barack Obama criticized NCLB and its emphasis on testing. Yet critics contend that his administration’s plan is virtually the same. Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan agreed to get rid of AYP, but will replace it with some other form of accountability program. The Obama plan sets a deadline of 2020 for all students to be on a path for college and career readiness. While supporters like the fact that the Obama plan includes some provisions for funding arts and other curricula, it includes the controversial notion that teacher pay should be tied to student performance.
- Darling-Hammond, L. (2007, May 21). Evaluating “No Child Left Behind.” The Nation. Retrieved from http://www.thenation.com/article/evaluating-no-child-left-behind?page=0,0
- Higpen, D. (2009, December 17). Rethinking school discipline. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-e-thigpen/rethinking-school-discipl_b_395715.html
- Karp, S. (2006, Spring). Band-aids or bulldozers. Rethinking Schools. Retrieved from http://www.rethinkingschools.org/special_reports/bushplan/band203.shtml
- Lee, J. (2006, June). Tracking achievement gaps and assessing the impact of NCLB on the gaps: An in-depth look into national and state reading and math outcome trends. The Civil Rights Project, Harvard University. Retrieved May from http://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/esea/nclb_naep_lee.pdf
- Miner, B. (2006, Spring). Why the right hates public education. Rethinking Schools. Retrieved from http://www.rethinkingschools.org/special_reports/bushplan/righPRO.shtml
- No Child Left Behind Act: http://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/esea02/index.html
- Strauss, V. (2010, March 13). Obama and NCLB: The good–and very bad– news. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/education-secretary-duncan/obama-and-nclb-the-good–and-v.html
- U.S. Department of Education. (2003). No Child Left Behind: A parents’ guide. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/parents/academic/involve/nclbguide/parentsguide.pdf