10 Years of No Child Left Behind: Flawed Beyond Fixing?

On January 8, 2002, President George Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law with bipartisan support. While it was initially hailed as heralding (to quote Bush) “a new era, a new time in public education in our country” that would provide “a new path of reform, and a new path of results” especially for disadvantaged students, ten years later, such results remain elusive.

NCLB is the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which was passed during the Johnson administration. It was an attempt to broaden the federal role in mandating regular standardized testing for all students with a goal of establishing standards for school accountability. Schools that did not make “Adequate Yearly Progress” would be subject to federal sanctions, federal funds would have to be set aside for tutoring and students could transfer to non-failing schools. Under NCLB, 100 percent of public school students — a tall order — would be proficient in math and reading by 2014. But as a new research report details, 31,737 out of 98,916 schools missed the law’s testing goals in 2009, too many for the government to improve.

What Did, and Didn’t, NCLB Achieve?

As Joy Resmovits writes, NCLB did “shine a light on underperforming minority groups.” The law also highlighted school accountability and standards for students.  Resmovits cites Charles Barone, the Democrats for Education Reform’s director of federal policy, who emphasizes that NCLB’s attempt to impose federal standards on American students’ performance meant that “some measure of reality” was brought to school districts and states who were letting students graduate with A’s and B’s but still seeing them struggle in college and in the workplace.

However, even with the threat of sanctions, scores on standardized tests have not improved  and US students continue to score behind their peers in other countries. Teachers have said that by making standardized tests so central, NCLB has forced teachers to teach to the test.

Some proponents of NCLB contend that the law has not been as successful as hoped because it was never fully funded by President Bush. In additional, “proficiency” in students was left to individual states to determine, with the result that schools in one state could receive a failing grade based on criteria that, in another state, would be considered sufficient.

Reforming NCLB

NCLB has been due for renewal since 2007. In October of 2011, Senator Tom Harkin (D.-Iowa), the chair of the Senate Education Committee, released an 865-page revision to NCLB, removing the provision that standardized test scores in reading and math would be used to determine a school as failing or not. While Harkin’s revisions won support from teachers’ unions, other education advocates and civil rights groups did not back it; Harkin’s committee approved it, but the bill has stalled in the House. In addition, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said that the bill makes too many compromises, especially in regard to teacher evaluations and student-achievement goals.

With the impasse in Congress and the desire to change a law widely seen to be flawed and a failure, President Obama used his executive authority to enact reforms that allow states to apply for waivers (including the 2014 deadline for proficiency), if they carry out certain reforms (including more rigorous teacher evaluation systems).

What’s Next For NCLB?

Senator Lamar Alexander (R.-Tennessee) has said that NCLB “has been a noble experiment” but that control of education should reside in local governments. Despite President Obama’s waiver plan, test preparation will continue to be a focus. In other words, as Care2 blogger Judy Molland wrote, the basic provisions of NCLB will remain and schools with low-scoring students could still receive failing grades. Focusing on students taking standardized tests in math and reading has meant that “history, the arts, foreign languages, P.E and even recess” have all been shortchanged.

The one thing that we can (perhaps) all agree about is that no one has been entirely happy about NCLB, and many have been, and will continue to be, deeply frustrated with it. Were national, federally-mandated requirements for education a mistake from the start, or might they be effective if carried out differently — perhaps without such an emphasis on standardized test scores?


Related Care2 Coverage

Leaving Behind No Child Left Behind

No Child Left Behind – The War Is On!

Goodbye To No Child Left Behind? Not So Fast


Photo by jeri gloege


Robert Ludwig
Robert Ludwig6 years ago

NCLB might be good at creating worker bees able to operate the machinery of production (visions of Metropolis dance in my head), but it is not going to bring the best out in our children. All across the country, school systems are cutting programs and curriculum just to meet the minimum "standards" of NCLB.

What ever it's intentions were, it has been a stab in the back for an entire generation.

Marc P.
Marc P6 years ago

Marylin, welcome to the United Corporations of America, est.d January 2010.

Marilyn R.
Marilyn R.6 years ago

Why are school systems shoving teachers and students through the yearly curiculum at warp speed? How can a teacher teach or a student learn if being rushed through the subject before understanding it? What is the rush?
School systems only concern is obtaining funding from the state; at the expense of student and teacher. There is no personal concern for the students. When money becomes the only vision people suffer a great loss, as is our student body in America. Student's are beginning to feel stupid and beginning to hate school and learning. That is not a sign of sucess. S

Kiera H.
Kiera H.6 years ago

Up front, I have opposed NCLB since before it was implemented. More testing means less teaching. and now there are situations where teachers jobs are dependent upon those test scores. In order for teachers to get their students to pass the tests, they are forced to "teach to the test" or in extreme (but rare) cases, even cheat for them. Teachers cannot spend any time on more engaging and experimental teaching methods. Things like living history, arts, and recess are all being ignored at the expense of sitting in a chair for a lecture. Kids need active things so that their brain will work in the classroom. Many students are simply poor test takers, the stress gets to them and they cannot perform very well. As a student who was performing above average, another concern that I had was the idea of making everyone average. First off we must no what average means. It is taking all of the scores together and dividing them among how many students. If someone scores extremely high, the average will show up higher, same thing if someone is low. In order to make everyone average we also have to bring the high achievers down. And that is all that this program has succeeded in doing. Boring students with great potential to the point that they do not care. Between teachers not being able to teach effectively, the boredom of students, and the pent-up energy distracting them, it is no wonder that NCLB has failed so miserably.

Karla B.
K B6 years ago

Please sign this petition for ADHD children rights at school http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/support-teacher-staff-training-adhd/, THANKS

Faith Purdy
Faith Purdy6 years ago

i have taken standardized tests throughout middle school and will have to take them again this year (my junior year in highschool) they distract teachers and students, we spend weeks learing and reviewing things that might be on the tests and my school spends money to get packets and such that are supposed to help us prepare for the tests, it's rediculous and it takes way too much time away from what we really should be learing.

Curtis Monroe G.
Curtis Griffin6 years ago


Michele Rhee founder of Students First also attended. DO NOT SIGN STUDENTS FIRST PETITIONS. Rhee is attempting to raise $1 billion for education ‘reform’. Students First petitions are a means to glean email addresses to appeal for funds with deceptive claims for ‘reform’. DO NOT FALL FOR THIS SCAM!

Cheryl L.
Cheryl L6 years ago

Marc P.: ----- I think you're quite right. If it weren't so sad, I would find it amusing that one of the "dumbest" presidents we've ever had, was the one who came up with the NCLB and did not fund it properly to begin with. This Law has been a burden on educators ever since then, and now children NO LONGER receive a well-rounded education. A few years back, I recall seeing in our main newspaper's editorial section a letter from the Principal of a High School APOLOGIZING to parents for being RESTRAINED from giving a well-rounded education to students because of the restrictions of NCLB. He said that with all the focus on testing that children were losing out on all the other courses that used to be available to help a child grow into a career of his/her choosing and to develop and succeed with their own individual talents. It was a very honest, sincere and sad letter that pretty much summed up the damage done to this country's youth because of this misguided and self-serving law. NCLB makes our children into brainwashed zombies, learning what the government has forced them to learn.

I totally agree with you that the intent of the GWB administration was not to help the children of this country.

Amanda C.
Amanda C6 years ago

I was never a fan. When NCLB started, history classes stopped.

Ashley B.
Ashley B6 years ago

** I should have added... Charter schools do not always have the same testing accountability that public schools have. Thus, they cannot often be compared in the same ways because they are often not measured in the same way....