Revisiting No Child Left Behind

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, which received bipartisan support for its passage in 2001, requires that states implement a variety of assessment mechanisms for students and teachers in order to qualify for federal education funding.  This federal act does not establish criteria to which all states must adhere; the means of assessment are left to each state to implement as it sees fit.  In January 2001, President George W. Bush said of NCLB, “’These reforms express my deep belief in our public schools and their mission to build the mind and character of every child, from every background, in every part of America.’” Calling it the “cornerstone” of his Administration, President Bush touted the various components of NCLB.

NCLB, at the time of its passage, was intended to provide “increased accountability for States, school districts, and schools; greater choice for parents and students, particularly those attending low-performing schools; more flexibility for States and local educational agencies (LEAs) in the use of Federal education dollars; and a stronger emphasis on reading…” The Act ties federal education dollars to performance on standardized testing.  In large part, this stipulation has been the foundation for continued criticisms of the program. 

With federal funds tied to the performance outcomes of standardized testing measurements, many claim that teachers began “teaching to the test.”  Rather than explore the entirety of the curriculum, many teachers and school districts have been accused of focusing solely on the materials that they know will be on “the test.”  This summer, NCLB took a significant hit to its already shaky reputation when more than 100 teachers, principals, and public school officials in Atlanta were allegedly involved in altering students’ answers on the state’s Criterion Reference Competency Test (CRCT) to make it appear as if students were scoring higher on that standardized test than was actually the case. 

Other critics of NCLB claim that the federal government is requiring significant expenditures of the states in order to meet the various requirements of the Act.  For example, by requiring schools to provide “highly qualified” teachers to every student, some school districts may have to increase their teacher salaries.  The federal government has never fully funded NCLB and many states bemoan the various costs associated with the Act that the federal government does not cover.  Some consider the situation a Catch-22: many states are failing because of inadequate and less-than-qualified teachers.  Requiring them to employ more qualified teachers and staff will also require them to spend money, money that many states are having difficulties finding.

Dan Lips, education analyst at The Heritage Foundation, reported in November 2006 that during the Bush Administration, federal spending on public education increased significantly.  The organization states, “Annual U.S. Department of Education spending on elementary and secondary education has increased from $27.3 billion in 2001 to $38 billion in 2006, up by nearly 40 percent.”   Lips noted in his report that this increase in funding had done little to improve the quality of American public schools and many were facing the same challenges that were in front of them at the inception of NCLB.  Beginning in 2006, however, federal education spending dropped significantly until 2010 when it jumped again to levels even higher than federal education spending in 2006. 

Last week, President Obama announced that he would allow states to liberate themselves from the burdens of some of the elements associated with No Child Left Behind.  Obama stated that he was providing greater flexibility to states because “’We can’t let another generation of young people fall behind.’”  Specifically, States will have an opportunity to apply for a waiver which would allow them greater autonomy in dealing with troubled or failing schools.  In order to expect the waiver to be granted, however, states would be required to show that they have been raising standards. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, President Obama tied the imperative of improving educational standards in the United States to the current economic situation.  He stated to an audience of education leaders attending a meeting on the topic at the White House that, “’We are in the midst of an enormous economic challenge…the most important thing we can do is make sure that our kids are prepared for this new economy.’”  This sentiment aligns with the President’s consistently-stated goal of increasing the nation’s college graduation rates so that America is once again the preeminent nation in that ranking. 

President Obama’s announcement about his waiver program coincides with Congress’ reconsideration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  Passed in the mid-1960s as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” the ESEA has been the overarching policy guiding elementary and secondary education in the United States since its passage.  President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act was the reauthorization of the ESEA in 2001.  By mid-October Congress is expected to begin an intense review of ESEA.  Given the current political situation, it will be interesting to see if any significant changes are proposed and, if so, how closely the final ESEA reauthorization bill lines up with President Obama’s latest initiative offering NCLB waivers for individual states. 
 

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