From the moment President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2002, the federal education law has exerted a profound influence on public education. Both because of the new school accountability regimen the law established, and the disparities in student learning that the system laid bare, the law has made a deep imprint on the education landscape. Virtually every element of the broad, sweeping law has been the subject of spirited—and sometimes fierce—debate within the education and political communities. Those elements include the law’s expansion of standardized testing, its definition of “highly qualified” teachers, and most especially, its emphasis on “adequate yearly progress” and student “proficiency.”
Though it was enacted with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, ensuing arguments over the impact of the landmark law eroded its support in the decade following its adoption. The 2007 date for reauthorizing NCLB, which was itself a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), has come and gone. While federal legislators failed to rework the law in 2011, the Obama administration offered states waivers to avoid the law’s most aggressive accountability consequences as long as state leaders committed to pursuing a menu of education reforms. The publications, news stories and other information presented in this section of Story Starters delve into the many issues No Child Left Behind has raised.
Proficiency and Adequate Yearly Progress
Accountability—holding schools responsible for student learning—was the centerpiece goal of NCLB, according to its supporters. Through the law’s requirement that 100 percent of public school students score at a level of “proficient” or higher on state standardized tests by 2014—a goal now widely seen as unattainable—lawmakers aimed to ensure that every student was really learning. In particular, schools are held accountable for the progress of students in each of four main types of subgroups: students who are economically disadvantaged, those who are in special education, English-language learners, and students from each of various ethnic and racial groups.
The student test scores are used annually to determine if each school is making adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward the 2014 proficiency target. Failing to meet the annual benchmarks triggers progressively larger consequences, ranging from requiring schools to offer students free tutoring to mandating that schools rewrite their curricula and replace most of their teachers. Not meeting proficiency in one category of AYP does not necessarily disqualify a school from making AYP, however: NCLB allows states to have a “safe harbor” that allows schools to offset low performance in one area with a better showing in another.
Schools that receive funds under Title I—a part of the ESEA aimed at helping schools with high percentages of students from low-income families—are subject to sanctions if they fail to meet AYP two years in a row. After that, schools must allow students to enroll in better-performing schools and devise a school improvement plan that, among other provisions, sets aside 10 percent of the school’s Title I money for staff training. Schools that fail to meet AYP for three consecutive years also have to reserve a portion of their Title I funds—the largest pot of money available through ESEA—not only for student transfers but also for private tutoring, known under the law as supplemental educational services (SES).
After four years, schools are required to take corrective measures that can include replacing part or all of their staff members, adopting a new curriculum, extending the school day, and other options. Missing AYP five consecutive years means a school is placed under “restructuring” and is expected to draft a plan of action that changes the governance makeup of the school. Federal guidelines say that the changes should lead to “fundamental reforms”; among the options are converting into a charter school, turning over the school to the state, and enlisting a private school management firm. A sixth consecutive year of missed AYP leads to implementation of the restructuring plan drawn up the previous year.
In order to measure how each school performs every year, NCLB unleashed a substantial increase in the standardized tests students had to take, requiring that students take such tests annually in grades 3-8 and then once again when in high school. Prior to the law’s enactment, fewer than 20 states tested on a level comparable to NCLB’s requirements. The federal law does not set national academic standards for what is on the tests. Instead, it lets states design their own assessments for measuring student learning and decide how well students must perform to be considered proficient. The tests vary widely in rigor, from state to state, though a 2011 report found that almost all states’ standards for proficiency are below those set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
Supporters welcome the data NCLB generates on student learning. Yet critics say the increased testing it necessitates cuts into instruction time and squeezes subjects that are not on the standardized tests out of the curriculum, effects referred to as “teaching to the test” and “narrowing of the curriculum.” Critics of the law also argue that states have too much liberty to raise or lower their cut scores for proficiency, basically undermining the law’s intent to hold schools accountable and leading to wide variation from state to state.
By requiring states to break down, or “disaggregate,” the test data by subgroups, NCLB brought to light large gaps in the standardized test scores of different groups of students, sometimes even within the same schools. Widespread support exists for this information among educators, families, researchers and journalists. But shining a spotlight on those achievement gaps has not necessarily translated into clear-cut success in closing them. Though the law has been in effect for more than a decade, nearly half of the nation’s schools continue to fall short of the proficiency goal while the 2014 date for 100 percent compliance draws nearer. While NAEP scores during the NCLB era have increased, the rate of increase compared with previous years has not changed considerably.
“Highly Qualified Teachers”
NCLB’s definition of who should be deemed a strong teacher also has come under fire. Known as the Highly Qualified Teacher rule, the provision specifies the criteria that grant teachers this designation, how many such educators each school should have, and what schools must do when classrooms are led by instructors that do not meet the highly qualified criteria.
To meet the highly qualified teacher criteria, teachers must have a college degree, competency in the subject they teach, and state certification to teach the subject area. NCLB orders schools to inform parents when their children are taught for more than four consecutive weeks by a teacher who does not meet those criteria. The law also specifies that “poor and minority children are not [to be] taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers.”
Critics of the HQT provision argue that it focuses unduly on credentials rather than classroom results and question whether teachers pursuing certification through an alternative program such as Teach for America can be considered highly qualified before they formally earn their certificates. (The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that teachers-in-training could not be considered highly qualified, but in 2010 Congress adopted an amendment effectively reversing that decision.) In recent years, advocates have worked to shift policymakers’ attention from whether teachers meet the criteria for being “highly qualified” to whether they are “highly effective” at increasing student learning.
Some of the debates over NCLB’s impact pit the desire for evidence of academic progress against concerns over what might be sacrificed in that pursuit. The law’s supporters argue that its strict diet of testing and sanctions—however unpalatable to some they might be—are critical to advancing the goal that all students learn. Detractors counter by arguing that standardized tests can never fully measure an education, and that high-stakes assessments risk steering classroom teaching in directions detrimental to important types of academic growth.
While these debates simmer, NCLB remains the law of the land, awaiting reauthorization with no immediate clear path forward. President Obama initially sidestepped the debate over rewriting the law, emphasizing instead his own Race to the Top program, which uses grants initially funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus package to encourage education reforms. After urging Congress to write a replacement for NCLB to no avail, President Obama offered states an opt-out from NCLB’s sanctions so long as they agree to a list of education reforms. To receive waivers, states must set up academic standards to make students “college and career ready,” have plans for turning around the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, adopt teacher-evaluation systems that take student achievement into account, and continue monitoring the performance of students along demographic lines.
In June of 2013, the Education Department announced it would extend the deadline previously set for states to link teacher personnel decisions with student test scores, citing the imminent adoption of the Common Core State Standards as a reason. States that received waivers in the first two rounds have until the 2016-17 school year to link test scores with teacher assessment. More waiver news broke in November of 2013 when Education Week reported that the Education Department will scale back its enforcement of rules meant to ensure that states are providing low-income and minority students equal access to effective teachers.
Eleven states—Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Tennessee—were awarded waivers in February 2012. Eight more states—Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island—won waivers in May of that year. In June of 2012 another five states—Arkansas, Missouri, South Dakota, Utah and Virginia—received waivers. Wisconsin and Washington were awarded their NCLB waivers in July. Later in the month, Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Oregon, South Carolina, and the District of Columbia had their waiver applications approved. Nevada had its waiver application approved in early August and Idaho in October, while Alaska, Hawaii and West Virginia received theirs in May of 2013. In June, Alabama and New Hamphsire received their flexibility waivers, while Maine and Pennsylvania received ones in August. In a surprise move, the Education Department granted Texas an ESEA waiver after the state made major adjustments to its original aplication, bringing the total to 42 states plus the District of Columbia. Also worth noting: The Education Department in August of 2013 granted a one-year waiver to eight districts in California that together enroll more than one million students. — Mikhail Zinshteyn, June 2013 (Last Update: 10/1/2013)
Highlighted journalism and reports for this topic
States seeking waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act are hoping to replace what is widely considered an outdated, but consistent, school accountability regime with a hodgepodge of complex school grading systems that are as diverse as the states themselves. (Education Week)Read More »
The waivers being granted to 10 of 11 states that applied for flexibility under the No Child Left Behind Act would allow them to make potentially broad changes in how school performance and the performance of student subgroups are judged under the decade-old law. (Education Week)Read More »
The leeway to set the new academic goals tacitly acknowledges that the 100 percent goal is unrealistic. But it also means that members of racial and ethnic minorities, English-language learners, and students with disabilities will fail to master college- and career-readiness standards by the end of the 2016-17 school year at greater rates in most waiver states. (Ed Week)Read More »
At least half the schools in Alaska, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and West Virginia are considered rural by the National Center for Education Statistics. Alabama also has a high number of rural students, while Hawaii's single, state-run school district educates some students who live in remote island areas. (Ed Week)Read More »
A publication out of Teachers College, Columbia University, offered this round up of the chief debates and controversies surrounding the Highly Qualified Teacher provision of NCLB through its accompanying blog. It focuses on a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision limiting the HQT provision and Congress disregarding that ruling. (Hechinger Report)Read More »
This interactive timeline provides links to dozens of articles as they appeared when first published, providing a treasure trove of information, particularly the evolution of No Child Left Behind. The timeline can be organized by topic and chronology. (Education Week)Read More »
John Kline’s No Child Left Behind Bills Strike at Values of Brown v. Board of Education, Coalition WritesJanuary 25, 2012
This Huffington Post article examines the frustrations various advocacy groups have with national education laws, specifically the U.S. House of Representative’s effort to reauthorize ESEA. While this article looks into the fallout over accountability measures for minorities, English language learners and low-income students, it brings up the bigger issue of how much accountability and closing the achievement gap matter to stakeholders. (Huffington Post)Read More »
This analysis piece from New America Foundation, a small but influential Washington D.C. think-tank, provides a clear account of several Title I funding issues tied to NCLB. While the article’s author focuses on House Republican efforts to rewrite the national education law, her revenue allocation insights are likely to aid journalists wanting a technical edge in their reporting moving forward. (New America Foundation)Read More »
The NAF offers this 2012 comparison of the House and Senate ESEA reauthorization bills. (New America Foundation)Read More »
Politicians, analysts, teachers and administrators wrote short essays on what NCLB achieved and what it failed to achieve or never even took up as an issue. The contributing authors can make for good sources as the push to overhaul NCLB picks up steam. (Education Week)Read More »
This 2012 essay written by Andrew Rotherham, who co-founded the seminal education groups Education Sector and Bellwether Education, offers a defense of NCLB, painting a picture of how the law forced education players to recognize an achievement gap existed between races, gender, and the rich and poor. (Time)Read More »
Another NCLB retrospective, this one written by Michael J. Petrilli, offers reasons to respect the national education law and several things to learn from its tenure. His insights tend to resonate with Republican lawmakers. (Huffington Post)Read More »
EWA 2012 National Reporting Contest winner. After 10 years as the federal education law of the land, what has No Child Left Behind achieved? One reporter put the law up to letter-grade scrutiny as she consulted nearly two dozen education experts. The results were mixed. (National Journal)Read More »
This article from 2009 highlights the ineffectual but costly role supplemental educational services played in improving achievement for at-risk and low-performing students in the Las Vegas region. A 2011 draft paper looked at SES programs nationwide, concluding few are effective. (Las Vegas Sun)Read More »
This 2002 article characterizes the moods of 45 state heads of education as mostly positive. Many were looking forward to NCLB, particularly the emphasis on tougher standards and the billions more in Title I funds the new law would bring. (Education Week)Read More »
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Reports & Data
Notable research on this topic
States’ Perspectives on Waivers: Relief from NCLB, Concern about Long-term Solutions, by Jennifer McMurrer and Nanami Yoshioka at the Center on Education PolicyMarch 4, 2013
This report describes states’ early experiences in applying for flexibility from key requirements of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as NCLB waivers, and their plans for implementing the new systems outlined in their applications. Findings from the 38 survey states indicate states believe that the waivers address several of the problems they see with the NCLB accountability requirements, however, many state officials are concerned about what will happen to the programs and policies in their waiver plans if ESEA is reauthorized. (Center on Education Policy)Read More »
Part of an ongoing study by the U.S. Department of Education of how states are implementing NCLB. It hits upon every accountability metric and spending requirement the national law placed on states, and how the states measured up in return.Read More »
This CEP report reads like an almanac of every useful, crucial, rarefied and fun fact about U.S. education.Read More »
This Center on Education Policy report estimates 48 percent of states missed AYP in 2011. In general, CEP provides informative reports and large-scale surveys testing the moods of educators and administrators.Read More »
This Center for American Progress analysis and summary of the first 11 waiver applications to opt out of NCLB approaches the topic from the perspective of feasibility, cost, and honoring the terms set forth by the Obama administration. A list of small corrections can be found here.Read More »
Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales: Variation and Change in State Standards for Reading and Mathematics, 2005-2009August 11, 2011
This National Center for Education Statistics report compares state standardized scores that measure AYP and how they measure up to the rigors of NAEP. The authors conclude states vary widely in how they define proficiency in a subject. For added context, read Wall Street Journal and Huffington Post’s respective articles summarizing the report, via This Week in Education.Read More »
Implementation and Effectiveness of Supplemental Education Services (SES): A Review and Recommendations for Program ImprovementMarch 11, 2011
A draft report from the Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research on the price tag and efficacy of SES programs on a national level.Read More »
The American Institutes for Research, through the U.S. Department of Education, concluded in 2007 that while most teachers are highly qualified, the distinction doesn’t seem to matter.Read More »
Five Questions to Ask
- Have accountability pressures tied to NCLB affected the enrollment dynamics of particular schools? For example, have schools counseled out low-performing students to lift overall standardized test scores to secure AYP?
- Has there been conflict in your schools between educators certified through teacher colleges and those who received alternative certification, such as Teach for America? Are instructors who are completing alternative certification programs disproportionately assigned to schools and classrooms with high concentrations of poor or minority students?
- If schools have missed AYP enough years to allow for students to receive supplemental educational services, are the private tutoring companies certified? Who monitors the professional qualifications of SES groups? Do teachers from the AYP-missing schools moonlight as SES tutors?
- Is there evidence that schools neglect to challenge high-performing students in the quest to lift make AYP? For example, are honors and AP teachers taking on more remedial or struggling students and thus teaching fewer advanced courses?
- Are the schools that underwent a turnaround performing better than they did before the intervention? If so, are there notable demographic or enrollment differences that can help explain the change?
The Alliance for Excellent Education “is a Washington, DC-based national policy and advocacy organization that works to improve national and federal policy so that all students can achieve at high academic levels and graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and citizenship in the twenty-first century.” With regard to NCLB, the Alliance says the law “has played an important role in highlighting achievement gaps, but it has steadily proven to be inadequate in providing sufficient remedies and flexibility. A decade later, NCLB is a compact disc in an iPod world; it greatly needs updating.”
The American Association of School Administrators counts more than 13,000 educational leaders from across the United States and the world in its membership. These members include chief executive officers, superintendents and senior level school administrators along with cabinet members, some professors and others who manage schools and school systems. AASA was founded in 1865. Regarding NCLB, AASA has asserted that “The accountability system should be made up of measures of growth that differentiate levels of success. We support the encouragement for states to adopt systems of assessments that give teachers and principals the information they need to improve individual student achievement.”
The Council of Chief State School Officers "is a nonpartisan, nationwide, nonprofit organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education in the states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity, and five U.S. extra-state jurisdictions,” according to the group.
Education Sector is a Washington, D.C.-based, non-partisan think tank that has followed NCLB from its legislative development through its implementation. Their experts can offer a range of information about impact of the law’s requirements.
Founded in 1916, the National Association of Secondary School Principals is the leading professional organization for the nation’s middle school and high school principals.
The National Center for Fair and Open Testing is known more commonly as FairTest. The organization “advances quality education and equal opportunity by promoting fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial evaluations of students, teachers and schools. FairTest also works to end the misuses and flaws of testing practices that impede those goals.” For journalists, this group has become the go-to resource for statements critical of standardized tests. They have been a vocal critic of the regimen of testing that NCLB mandated.
The National Education Association is the nation’s largest teachers’ union with nearly 3 million members. It has been one of the leading critics of NCLB: With eight school districts in Michigan, Texas, and Vermont, it filed a lawsuit against the legislation in 2005. Many of the strict regulations of NCLB directly affect teachers.
Suggest a Change
If you'd like to suggest an addition or change to this section, send an email to EWA Project Director Kenneth Terrell.