In 2002, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was updated by the No Child Left Behind Act. President George W. Bush signed the act into law at a high school in Ohio on January 8, 2002. The goal of this education act was to develop student assessments of basic skills. If schools did so, then they would receive Federal school funding. If they did not, then the Federal funding went away.
The primary benefit of the No Child Left Behind Act was that it allowed each state in the US to develop their own achievement standards. It placed an emphasis on annual testing for those skills, tracking academic process for individual students, and improving teacher qualifications. Report cards were also a point of focus of this legislation, helping to clear communication gaps that may have existed between parents and students.
The disadvantage of the No Child Left Behind Act was that corrections took too long to implement. Two consecutive years of missing targets would require a 2-year improvement plan by the school to correct the problem and students would be allowed to transfer to a better school in the district. A third consecutive year forced the school to offer free tutoring. At 4 years, students may be required to spend more time in class and staff could be replaced. At 6 years of non-compliance, the school could be closed or turned into a charter school.
Although the No Child Left Behind Act was replaced in 2015, there are still pros and cons to examine of this legislation because its remnants are still being enforced by states at the local district level.
List of the Pros of No Child Left Behind
1. It added structure to educational programs nationwide.
Although the standards were set by the states, No Child Left Behind became one of the first concentrated efforts to improve the standing of US students compared to the rest of the world. By creating standardized testing results, students could be compared via performance to identify learning gaps. That allowed more students to receive an individualized plan to improve their learning opportunities.
2. It held teachers and administrators accountable for student performance.
Before No Child Left Behind, it was easy to write off some kids as being “bad learners” or “troublemakers.” With standardized testing requirements applying to everyone, the goal was to provide each student with a learning opportunity that suited them. If teachers or administrators could not provide that opportunity, the legislation offered remedies that would benefit students.
3. Socioeconomic gaps had less influence with this legislation.
The overall goal of No Child Left Behind was to provide students in disadvantaged areas an equal opportunity to learn compared to other students in the US. Children with special needs could receive detailed IEPs. Low-income families received resources without a large budget commitment. Bilingual teachers were brought into communities where English wasn’t the first language.
4. Teacher qualifications were emphasized during NCLB.
In past generations, the only thing required to become a teacher was experience and perhaps a license. After No Child Left Behind, there were incentives in place to encourage teachers to pursue higher-level credentials. Teachers with a better education, in theory, can teach their own students in a better way. The goal of these improvements was pretty basic: to get the best-possible teachers in front of students in every community.
5. Resource identification became easier.
No Child Left Behind also made it possible for schools to be incentivized to find students who required extra help with their education. It wasn’t just about losing money if test scores didn’t “make the grade.” Free supplemental help gives a child a better foundation for life without requiring a family or household to find extra financial resources. Extra teaching assistants and other classroom assets could be directed toward these students as well, ensuring the best possible school experience.
6. It gave parents a better understanding of their schooling options.
Many parents have their public school assigned to them based on their current address. With No Child Left Behind, families realized that they had more options than the assigned school. They could transfer students in-district to the best schools if there was room. They could go to a charter school if their district was consistently bad. In some areas, students could even go to a different school district to receive a better education. This process allowed parents to make better decisions because they had more information.
7. Minority students could provide an equal contribution.
Even in school culture, there is a majority vs minority culture in place. By providing minorities with an equal learning experience, students could learn more about one another. They could get to know different cultures and ethnicities in the safety of the classroom. That learning support even included information about different religions. It was a process that allowed every student to feel like they were contributing to the learning process.
8. It improved student test scores.
For the United States as a whole, No Child Left Behind brought about a general improvement in test scores since it was fully implemented in 2002. The test scores for minority students have shown some of the highest levels of growth since its first implementation. Although test score improvements have been happening since the 1980s and some may argue NCLB had no influence on this trend, it hasn’t hurt test scores either.
9. Schools were required to report their data.
NCLB required schools, at the end of the 2002-2003 school year, to begin supplying an annual report card with a wide range of data. Student achievement information was required to be reported by sub-group demographics. Each school district had to break down the information on a school-by-school basis. In return, a $1 billion grant program was initiated to help states and school districts offer reading programs in K-3.
List of the Cons of No Child Left Behind
1. Many schools tied student performance to teacher salaries.
If students didn’t perform well, then teachers received poor marks on their annual review. That offered the potential of losing a raise or even a job because students were under-performing. Since teachers have no real control over who is assigned to their classroom, many felt like this process kept them from teaching. They felt forced to “teach to the test” just so they could protect their own livelihood. It became a process that was intended to help students, but wound up hurting many learning opportunities instead.
2. The best students in a classroom were often ignored.
If a student could pass the standardized testing requirements and didn’t need much help understanding the school work, then teachers and administrators often “passed the buck” on these achievers. Parents were given homework and instructions in some instances so that the teachers could focus on getting the grades of the other students up to an acceptable level.
3. The students with the worst grades in a classroom were often discarded.
Teachers and administrators would also pay little attention to the students with the poorest grades. The idea was that the best students would already pass and the students with the worst grades would never make it anyway. That meant many classrooms focused on teaching a core group of students that could potentially make the grade, leaving all other students to their own devices.
4. It created teacher shortages in many communities.
In a large urban area, strict teaching requirements are not much of an issue. There is a large enough population base to find the necessary instructors. In small, rural communities, teacher shortage areas became a real problem. It is an issue that is still plaguing many districts today. Specific subject areas are seeing shortages as well. For the 2016-2017 school year, the State of Washington listed 18 specific subject areas where there is a shortage of teachers, based on reporting from the USDE Office of Postsecondary Education.
5. Smart children do not always perform well on standardized tests.
Testing is not an accurate reflection of a child’s ability to perform. Some children know the material, but the structure of the test is confusing to them. Audio portions of a standardized test may be affected by the quality of the equipment being used. Something as simple as a malfunctioning set of headphones can be enough to change a student’s scores. Children with learning disabilities or special education needs were not excluded from the data either in many states.
6. It changed the goal of learning.
In the past, a grasp of the material being learned was the most important part of the school day. After No Child Left Behind became law, the emphasis shifted to teaching students how to properly take a standardized test. This created a limited range of knowledge for an entire generation of students. They know enough to pass a test, but do not really understand the subject matter that they tested successfully on. It’s like knowing how to cook on paper, but not understanding how to turn the stovetop on when trying to make something in real life.
7. The structure of NCLB was more about money than student learning.
Some schools just didn’t bother to care about what No Child Left Behind mandated. Since the only pull was Federal money, there were some districts that chose not to take the money so they wouldn’t be liable for the outcomes. In a December 2003 report by the New York Times, school districts in 3 Connecticut towns turned away a total of $133,000 to avoid what one superintendent called a “bureaucratic nightmare.”
8. Teachers could be involuntarily transferred.
Districts that had schools which were poorly performing had the option to replace their teachers. In 2007, an addition to No Child Left Behind allowed school districts to go around existing contracts to involuntarily transfer teachers from their preferred school to one that was performing poorly. In larger cities, the new schools could be more than an hour away and the teachers would be responsible for the added commuting costs. This issue created many rifts between teachers and administrators and many households saw that rift as an argument about money and nothing more.
9. It never really addressed the core issues behind poor student learning.
The No Child Left Behind legislation made three core assumptions about how students were failing to meet expectations: 1) that the curriculum was at fault; 2) that teachers and administrators were not performing as expected; and 3) that students were not spending enough time in a classroom environment. Factors such as large classroom size, poor building condition, or even hunger were not part of the legislation.
10. School funding was driven into test-related subjects.
Students in schools that were struggling to reach NCLB score mandates funneled money away from creative subjects. Instead of funding art or music, private tutoring and after-school programs that worked on homework with students was funded.
Although the No Child Left Behind Act has been removed in favor of the Every Student Succeeds Act, there are still grandfathered consequences built into many school districts around the country. By understanding the structure of US laws regarding education, the pros can be emphasized, the cons minimized, and that will allow this generation of students to hopefully achieve their full potential.