The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) was a reauthorization of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (the ESEA). The aim was to improve education for disadvantaged students and set in place accountability measures for Title 1 public schools. Refreshingly bipartisan in nature, the Act was proposed by the Bush Administration, coauthored by Representatives John Boehner (R-OH), George Miller (D-CA), and Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Judd Gregg (R-NH). With the swift passing of the bill through both the House of Representatives and the Senate, it was clear that both sides of the aisle supported making education a priority.
How it Worked
The Act called for states to develop and implement yearly standardized tests in reading and math. The test results then had to be made public and broken down by specific groups of students in order to identify achievement gaps between student demographics, including: economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, and students with limited English proficiency.
In order to ensure all children were achieving grade-level expectations, the Act established a timeline for adequate yearly progress (AYP), a new set of standards that schools would have to meet. States had to create AYP measurable objectives based on a set of requirements mandated by the law.
Each state had until the 05-06 academic year to develop the standardized tests, and then each consecutive year state schools had to measure test scores and make sure scores were improved the following year. If schools did not perform up to standard, a series of interventions were to be made in order to incentivize improvement. The first series of penalties included requiring that schools develop improvement plans, offer the option of transferring to a neighboring school for students, and offering free tutoring and supplemental after-school education. If schools continued to fall behind AYP, more drastic measures were enforced which involved the firing and replacement of teachers and administrators, mandating schools adopt entirely new curriculums, and extending class hours. Continued failure for improvement would mean the restructuring of the entire school and if need be, by the sixth year of failing standards, schools could be shut down, sold to private companies, converted to charter schools, or taken over by state offices.
Strengths of the Act
The Act initially had many strengths. Intending to improve state standards and quality of education for all students, NCLB set a new precedent for improving the nation’s schools.
The aim was to increase accountability by measuring student progress year by year. The state would then implement sanctions if schools did not meet the state’s measurable targets. By improving the quality of instruction, increasing parental involvement in school administrative planning, and by focusing on core academic subjects, the Act was designed to improve education through a diverse array of streams.
Additionally, NCLB emphasized the transparent reporting of student improvement, based on a set of student groups. Before the Act, states did not have standards set in place to measure outcomes for minority, poor, and non-English speaking students. This new reporting, in theory, would work to shed light onto learning gaps in order for schools to identify where improvements needed to be made.
Outcomes and Challenges with the Act
Despite common misconception, NCLB saw some success. The nation’s overall achievement gap lessened, and math scores increased. Unfortunately, reading scores did not improve, and as the years passed, more and more schools fell into the ‘failing’ category for AYP. States began to give up on achieving the standards, saying that the the requirement for 100% proficiency was unattainable. As school districts began to fall behind, states scrambled to revise standards and benchmarks in order for students to meet required improvements. The law saw some major resistance from critics of standardized tests. Many felt that testing was not a good way to measure learning or student aptitude, and that ‘teaching to the test’ to prepare students for the annual exams was making matters worse. Teachers unions also began resisting the standards of the Act, as unions were dead-set against strict and inflexible standards issued by the government. Critics argued that penalizing teachers and school administrations did not incentivize improvement in learning, but made it more difficult.
Once President Obama took office, the new administration attempted to lobby Congress to update the law. Unlike the previous administration, the Obama team was unable to build consensus in Congress through compromise, and improvements to the law through bipartisan legislation were not achieved. In an effort to appease the critics and find a temporary solution, the new administration wrote up waivers for states to continue to receive funding if they changed their accountability benchmarks. Although this was a temporary fix, it would be years before NCLB was revisited.