Pros & Cons of the No Child Left Behind Act

School children (14-18) raising hands in class
Jetta Productions/Digital Vision/Getty Images

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002(NCLB) was initially legislated for 5 years, and has been since temporarily extended, but not officially reauthorized.

Senate Democrats were divided were divided on reauthorization, while most Senate Republicans heartily despise NCLB. In May 2008, Senate reauthorization was put on the backburner while legislators pondered hundreds of reform ideas.

In early 2010 and again on March 14, 2011, President Obama said he will seek to reauthorize NCLB, but modified to be similar to his $4.35 billion Race to the Top initiative, which requires five major education reforms for K-12 public education, and pushes states to compete for education funding, rather than automatically receiving it based on a formula.

At Race to the Top, Obama's 2010 Education Grant Initiative, read a summary of Obama's controversial five reforms which are a model for his planned reform of NCLB.

NCLB is a federal law that mandates a number of programs aimed at improving U.S. education in elementary, middle and high schools by increasing accountability standards.

The approach is based on outcome-based theories education that high expectations goal-setting will result in greater educational achievement for most students.

Supporters of NCLB

Supporters of NCLB agree with the mandate for accountability to educational standards, and believe emphasis on test results will improve the quality of public education for all students.

Proponents also believe that NCLB initiatives will further democratize U.S. education, by setting standards and providing resources to schools, regardless of wealth, ethnicity, disabilities or language spoken.

Opponents of NCLB

Opponents of NCLB, which includes all major teachers' unions, allege that the act hasn't been effective in improving education in public education, especially high schools, as evidenced by mixed results in standardized tests since NCLB's 2002 inception.

Opponents also claim that standardized testing, which is the heart of NCLB accountability, is deeply flawed and biased for many reasons, and that stricter teacher qualifications have exacerbated the nationwide teacher shortage, not provided a stronger teaching force.

Some critics believe that the federal government has no constitutional authority in the education arena, and that federal involvement erodes state and local control over education of their children.

Current Status

In January 2007, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings published "Building on Results: A Blue print for Strengthening the No Child Left Behind Act," in which the Bush Administration:

  • Asserts that the Act "is challenging our students to succeed and our schools to improve."
  • Claims that "90% of teachers have met NCLB's highly qualified teacher requirements... At-risk students are getting help earlier... children with disabilities are receiving more classroom time and attention... "
  • Spellings' report admitted problems that NCLB has identified and not cured, including:
  • Between 1999 and 2004, reading scores for 17-year-olds fell 3 points, and math scores fell 1 point.
  • U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 24th out of 29 developed nations in math literacy and problem-solving, in 2003.
  • 1 million students annually drop out of high school before graduation.

Changes Proposed by Bush Administration


To strengthen the No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush Administration proposes:

* "A stronger effort must be made to close the achievement gap through the high school standards and accountability." TRANSLATED: More testing, and tougher tests.

* "Middle and high schools must offer more rigorous coursework that better prepares students for postsecondary education or the workforce." TRANSLATED: Tougher and more basics-focused courses in middle and high school. Also, clearer differentiation between college bound and non- college bound students.

* "States much be given the flexibilities and new tools to restructure chronically underperforming schools, and families must be given more options." TRANSLATED: The most controversial new proposal would enable students at failing schools to receive a voucher to transfer to a private school.

Thus, the Bush Administration is proposing that public school funds would be used to pay private and religious schools. Until now, students at perennially failing schools had the options to either transfer to another public school or receive extended tutoring at the school's expense.

Background

The 670-page No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) was passed with strong bipartisan backing by the House of Representatives on December 13, 2001 by a vote of 381-41, and by the Senate on December 18, 2001 by a vote of 87-10. President George W. Bush signed it into law on January 8, 2002.

The primary sponsors of NCLB were President George W. Bush and Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, a decades-long advocate for raising the quality of public education for all American children.

NCLB was partially based on education reform strategies instituted by President Bush during his tenure as Texas governor. Those Texas education reforms were reputed to result in improved standardized test scores. Subsequent inquiry revealed test-rigging by some educators and administrators.

Margaret Spellings, Former Secretary of Education

One of the principal authors of NCLB was Margaret Spellings, who was nominated to Secretary of Education in late 2004.

Spellings, who holds a B.A. in political science from University of Houston, was the political director for Bush's first gubernatorial campaign in 1994, and later served as a senior advisor to Texas Gov. Bush during his term as 1995 to 2000.

Before her association with George W. Bush, Spellings worked on an education reform commission under Texas Governor William P. Clements and as associate executive director for the Texas Association of School Boards. Prior to her nomination to be Education Secretary, Margaret Spellings worked for the Bush Administration as Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy.

Margaret Spellings has never worked in a school system, and has no formal training in education.

She is married to Robert Spellings, former Chief of Staff to the Speaker of the Texas House, now a prominent attorney in Austin, Texas and Washington D.C., who has actively lobbied for the adoption of school vouchers.

Pros

The primary positives of the No Child Left Behind Act include:

  • Accountability standards are set and measured annually by each state to foster educational growth and achievement. All results are also annually reported to parents.
  • Standards are set for teacher qualifications.
  • NCLB links state academic content with student educational outcomes, and requires school improvement be implemented using "scientific-based research" methods in the classroom, parent programs, and teacher development courses.
  • NCLB emphasizes reading, writing and math.
  • NCLB measures educational status and growth by ethnicity, and helps to close the achievement gap between white and minority students.
  • NCLB requires schools to focus on providing quality education to students who are often underserved, including children with disabilities, from low-income families, non-English speakers, as well as African-Americans and Latinos.
  • Parents are provided annually with a detailed report of student achievement, and explanations are provided of achievement levels.

Cons

Major drawbacks of the No Child Left Behind Actinclude:

Federal Underfunding

The Bush Administration has significantly underfunded NCLB at the state level, and yet, has required states to comply with all provisions of NCLB or risk losing federal funds.

Said Sen. Ted Kennedy, a sponsor of NCLB and Senate Education Committee Chair, "The tragedy is that these long overdue reforms are finally in place, but the funds are not."

As a result, most states have been forced to make budget cuts in non-tested school subjects such as science, foreign languages, social studies and arts programs, and for books, field trips and school supplies.

Teaching to the Test

Teachers and parents charge that NCLB encourages, and rewards, teaching children to score well on the test, rather than teaching with a primary goal of learning. As a result, teachers are pressured to teach a narrow set of test-taking skills and a test-limited range of knowledge.

NCLB ignores many vital subjects, including science, history and foreign languages.

Problems with NCLB Standardized Tests

Since states set their own standards and write their own standardized NCLB tests, states can compensate for inadequate student performance by setting very low standards and making tests unusually easy.

Many contend that testing requirements for disabled and limited-English proficient students are unfair and unworkable.

Critics allege that standardized tests contain cultural biases, and that educational quality can't necessarily be evaluated by objective testing.

Teacher Qualification Standards


NCLB sets very high teacher qualifications by requiring new teachers to possess one (or often more) college degrees in specific subjects and to pass a battery of proficiency tests. Existing teachers must also pass proficiency tests.

These new requirements have caused major problems in obtaining qualified teachers in subjects (special education, science, math) and areas (rural, inner cities) where schools districts already have teacher shortages.

Teachers especially object to the Bush 2007 proposal to allow districts to circumvent teacher contracts to transfer teachers to failing and poorly-performing schools.

Failure to Address Reasons for Lack of Achievement

At its core, NCLB faults schools and curriculum for student failure, but critics claim that other factors are also to blame, including: class size, old and damaged school buildings, hunger and homelessness, and lack of health care.

Where It Stands

There's little doubt that the No Child Left Behind Act will be reauthorized by Congress in 2007. The open question is: How will Congress change the Act?

White House Kicks-Off Reauthorization Discussions

A meeting was held on January 8, 2007 at the White House to mark the 5th anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act, and to kick-off Bush Administration discussons with Congress regarding reauthorization of the act.

Attendees at the meeting with President Bush and Education Secreatary Margaret Spellings were Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Chair of the Senate Education Committee; Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), ranking Republican on that committee; Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Chair of the House Education Committee; and Rep. Howard McKeon (R-CA), ranking Republican on that committee.

According to Sen. Enzi, "There was agreement we should proceed, and an agreement in principal on what needs to be done."

Religious, Civil Liberties Groups Propose NCLB Changes

More than 100 religious denominations and civil rights, education and disability advocacy groups have signed on to the "Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB", calling for changes to NCLB, and stating that:

"We endorse the use of an accountability system that helps ensure all children, including children of color, from low-income families, with disabilities, and of limited English proficiency, are prepared to be successful, participating members of our democracy...

... we believe the following significant, constructive corrections are among those necessary to make the Act fair and effective. Among these concerns are:

* over-emphasizing standardized testing, narrowing curriculum and instruction to focus on test preparation rather than richer academic learning;

* over-identifying schools in need of improvement; using sanctions that do not help improve schools;

* inappropriately excluding low-scoring children in order to boost test results;

* and inadequate funding.

Overall, the law's emphasis needs to shift from applying sanctions for failing to raise test scores to holding states and localities accountable for making the systemic changes that improve student achievement."