When President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act on Jan. 8, 2002, he was (for better or worse) changing the face of education in the United States forever. By beginning establishing a new education philosophy based on a stringent testing regime, Mr. Bush hopes to bring "accountability" to the nation's public schools. Proponents of the bill believe that it will motivate educational reforms on both the state and federal level. Critics claim that the Bush administration has simply added a layer of unnecessary red tape to an already-overburdened bureaucracy.

To cut through the mountains of rhetoric coming from all sides of the debate, I present to you below an overview of the most important piece of education legislation since Lyndon B. Johnson's Elementary and Secondary Education Act. I researched the legislation with sources representing all sides of the political spectrum: liberal, conservative, and nonpartisan. Overall, I think you’ll find an objective view of the facts here.

Below that, I weigh in on this issue from my perspective as a high school student. Will this legislation hinder or help American students? Can it turn around America's moribund public school system? And, most importantly from my perspective, will the added testing imposed by the bill help turnaround education in America? (Rest assured, if you want to skip over my opinion, feel free. The informational section of this write-up is designed as a stand-alone entity.)

The Bill: An Analysis

The current president has staked his domestic agenda tax cuts and the No Child Left Behind Act (or NCLB for short). NCLB is considered vital to Mr. Bush's re-election campaign- so important, in fact, that the administration continued to focus on it during its military campaigns in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The result is a bill that the Republican Party is hoping will usurp the Democratic Party's traditional strength in education. In other words, Karl Rove hopes that this bill will do for Mr. Bush what welfare reform did for former-President Bill Clinton in the mid-90's.

In crafting this legislation, Mr. Bush drew on his previous success in education as governor of Texas. He enshrined the key principles behind the educational turnaround he presided over in Texas into NCLB:

  • accountability,
  • flexibility,
  • research-based reforms, and
  • parental options.
Using these four precepts, Republican strategists hope that NCLB will revolutionize education, improving standards in a quantifiable way.

Accountability: Testing and Associated Programs

At once the cornerstone of NCLB and its most controversial feature, the so-called "accountability" clauses present in the legislation deserve a long look at. NCLB requires that all students take state-designed tests from Third Grade through Eighth Grade in math and reading. (By 2007, states must also introduce a science exam.) These tests are meant to ensure that the centerpiece of Mr. Bush's plans is met- states must "develop and implement 'challenging' academic standards in reading and math" so that, within 12 years, all ethnic, racial, and gender-based groups reach "proficiency" in these key subjects. They are theoretically designed to ensure that schools continue to raise the bar towards that goal every year, and the cost to write and score them is being underwritten by the federal government.

NCLB further specifies that, by the time the tests are finished for 2005-2006 school year, schools and school districts much show "adequate yearly progress" (or AYP) on the tests. Students from all demographic and ethnic groups must improve by a benchmark amount set by the state every year. If students from any group fail to achieve AYP over a period of time, increasingly harsh sanctions are applied to the violating schools and districts. The tier of penalties follows the following pattern (N.B. these penalties are only applicable for schools that accept Title I grant money, which every public school does):

  1. Schools or districts that fail to meet AYP in one or more group for two consecutive years are labeled under "school improvement." All children in these schools may elect to attend non-failing schools in the same districts. If all the schools in a district are failing, students may be sent to another school district, with transportation and all expenses provided for by the child's school district up to a spending cap set by the state.
  2. If a school fails to achieve the state AYP goal for three consecutive years, it is required to make available free "supplemental services" to any children remaining. In other words, students may receive free tutoring, after-school supplemental programs, and summer school at the request of a parent. (All tutors and supplemental programs are to be chosen from a state list.)
  3. If, after four years, a school fails to achieve its required AYP, it may replace members of the staff deemed "responsible" for the failure. A failing school in this category may also reorganize its curriculum and "management structure" in order to "address the weaknesses in the old one."
  4. A school that fails to meet AYP for five years may remove its principal and any administration members the district deems necessary. The school district also has the power to contract management of the school out to a private organization and may reopen the school as a charter school.
  5. If the school continues to show failure after these putative options are exercised, the state has the power to step in and personally manage the school in question.
Schools may avoid these federally-devised sanctions if they can demonstrate a 10% reduction in the number of students not meeting AYP from one year to the next.

The results of these tests, as mentioned above, will be disaggregated. In other words, when they are released in school districts' NCLB-mandated report cards every year, they are also broken up into four distinct sub-categories:

Because data are now broken down in such a manner, the bill's crafters hope that parental pressure will be brought to bear and force schools to focus attention on underperforming groups; there is now no way to hide a sub-group's underperformance within the higher average scores of general student population.

How are all of these test results compared on a national level? After all, every state must develop and implement its own tests and set its own goals- a vital concession to conservative members of Congress who refused to sign on to a NCLB that significantly strengthened the role of the federal Department of Education. What oversight the Department of Education provides is in the federal benchmark, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or NAEP). The NAEP is compiled from the results of a federally-designed standardized test administered to a small control group of students every year, providing a standard of comparison for the states' scores. However, to mollify the ultra-conservatives, the federal government can do nothing with the information it collects; a state that is meeting its own standards yet whose scores are low compared to the NAEP index suffers no penalties. Instead, it's hoped that parents in failing states will hold their state governments accountable for any such failures.

Flexibility and Research-Based Reforms: Federal Funding with Strings

Mr. Bush, like any conservative worth his salt, pushes policies that devolve power to the states. Not only are the states responsible for devising their own testing regimes, but because of NCLB, they also play a significant role in the allocation of federal education money. Under NCLB, the federal government spent approximately $23.7 billion in 2003, an increase of 59.8% over the 2000 figures. Most of this money is earmarked for spending on educating poor students and minorities. (Despite this large increase in funding, the states are still left with a majority of the financial burden to implement NCLB-related programs.)

However, in a significant departure from previous federal legislation, most of the aforementioned money is largely at the disposal of the states; they may use it as they see fit. The one caveat (put in place to appease liberals wanting more government oversight) is that any funding must be directed at programs that are "scientifically proven" effective. Under NCLB, federal money won't be spent on unproven revolutionary teaching processes; Congressional leaders preferred the "tried-and-true" methods, such as the federally-sponsored Reading First program used for years to improve literacy in children. Effectiveness comes at the price of innovation to ensure that (in the view of Congress) maximum results are produced for every dollar spent.

Parental Options: A Bill with a Bite

It's a well-known fact that Republicans have dreamt of a federal school voucher program for years. The current president is no exception; in the original bill, Mr. Bush inserted a measure establishing school vouchers for failing schools. However, the measure was dropped as a price for the strong bipartisan support the bill received. The Democratic leadership refused to accept a NCLB with school vouchers. By dropping this controversial feature, Republicans were able to win key Democrats into the fold, including Senator Ted Kennedy and then-House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, both of who proved crucial in passing the legislation.

Instead of school vouchers, NCLB established so-called "parental options" as part of the sanctions program outlined above. Believing that children shouldn't be forced to attend failing schools, Republicans and Democrats crafted the bill to allow students of failing schools to attend "passing" institutions at the failing school's expense. This is designed not only as a safety net for children but as an eye-grabbing red flag that's meant to spur failing schools into reforming.

Odds and Ends: Highly-Qualified Teachers and School Prayer

Another important, but less-trumpeted, featured of NCLB is its focus on highly-qualified teachers; a teacher must be proficient in the subject he teaches. Every instructor must hold at least a bachelor's degree. All newly-hired teachers in higher grades must have majored in the subjects they are currently teaching; current teachers can escape this requirement by passing a competency exam in their subjects and must hold at least a bachelor's degree by 2005. Paraprofessionals working with children must have completed at least two years of college or passed a certification test in reading, writing, and math by 2006. Parents also have the right under NCLB to know their children’s teachers' (and aids') qualifications.

Another feature hidden within this monstrous bill is a protection of constitutionally-protected school prayer. In order to retain federal funding, NCLB requires that each school district certify that it has "no policy that prevents or denies student and staff participation in constitutionally-protected prayer in its elementary and secondary schools." Among the religious activities protected under this bill are:

  • prayer during free time (i.e. lunch and recess),
  • private prayer (such as before a test),
  • reading religious texts during free time,
  • forming prayer groups or religious clubs that meet after or before school,
  • praying before or after meals, and
  • expressing religious beliefs in artwork, homework, and other assignments.
While staff members may also create their own religious groups, they may not join or participate in student-run religious activities.

Timeline: Important Dates of the Bill's Implementation

  • Effective on the passage of the bill:
    • All new teachers in low-income schools must be "highly qualified."
  • 2002-2003:
    • Districts must assess students with limited proficiency in English for their proficiency in the language.
    • Students in schools that have been low-performing for three or more consecutive years must be offered the supplemental services mandated by NCLB.
    • State plans to meet the highly-qualified teacher requirement must be finalized.
    • Students in schools that have been underperforming for two or more years must be offered the option of transferring. (The attempts to meet this in most states met with absolute failure; almost no districts actually ended up transferring students.)
    • By the last day of 2003, all states must have submitted their definitions of AYP to the federal Department of Education.
  • 2005-2006:
    • All teachers must be "highly qualified."
    • Annual exams for reading and math must be given for students in grades three through eight.
  • 2007-2008:
    • Statewide tests in science must be in place.
  • 2013-2014:
    • All students must be proficient in math and reading.

Opinion of a High School Student

Before I started the research for this write-up, I admit that I vehemently opposed NCLB. Though my allegiance to Republican conservatism is pretty well known, I felt that this bill was a mistake by Mr. Bush from the start. I didn't believe that further testing would accomplish anything but create more aggravation for already-stressed students.

When I actually buried myself in the research my opinion slowly began to change. When I came across the disturbing fact that only 32% of Fourth Graders can read at a Fourth Grade level, I realized that something had to be done. Like it or not, NCLB is the only option on the proverbial table that even attempts to address the horrible failure that is the United States' public schools. While NCLB is by no means perfect, it has the possibility of being a first step towards improving our failing education system.

Stopping-up the Black Hole

Perhaps the best part of this gargantuan Act is that it introduces checks on federal aid to schools. For years, politicians insisted that throwing money at the education problem would solve it- enormous spending increases were supposed to produce better-educated youths. Unfortunately, real life doesn't follow the pipe dreams of politicians, and money spent on education usually disappeared into the black hole of educational bureaucracies. The figures are astounding: despite spending more than $18 billion dollars on education in 2000, the federal government failed to raise reading scores for over 25 years. Obviously, any measure of accountability is an improvement. Under NCLB, states, while having some flexibility to tailor federal dollars to their specific needs, must restrict spending to teaching methods that are proven to be effective. In addition, because of the simplification measures built into NCLB, there will be a lot less money and time wasted on bureaucratic technicalities and more time for actual teaching. Money will now go towards students, not to producing more unnecessary mounds of paperwork.

Highly-Qualified Teaching, Finally

The "highly-qualified" teacher provision also has merit. Many inner-city schools are staffed by incompetents not versed in the subjects they teach. It's impossible to raise scores of students taught by inept teachers! NCLB will raise standards for teaching and allow the unqualified dead wood to fall off. Nevertheless, as LaggedyAnne pointed out to me, more money and incentives must be made available to failing school districts so that they can attract the qualified teachers they need; there must be suitably-qualified replacements to fill the spots vacated by the exodus of dead weight.

The Opposition and a Rebuttal

Opponents of NCLB focus on three key parts of the bill: lack of federal funding, new “draconian” federal requirements, and the newly-introduced tests. The New York Times, a publication against NCLB from the start, frequently publishes articles highlighting the problems often associated with NCLB. In a recent article by Sam Dillon ("Some School Districts Challenge Bush's Signature Education Law," Jan. 2, 2004), readers learn of the plight of many school districts in meeting strict education requirements in the midst of budget crises brought on by the recession. Fred Gaige, a school board member in Reading, PA, decries that NCLB "can just overwhelm a school district's ability to meet its requirements, especially when a district is as financially stressed as we are." Kory M. Holdaway, a Republican member of the Utah legislature, goes further, charging that NCLB is an "unfunded mandate" with spending requirements that are impossible to meet.

While these accusations have an element of truth in them- the federal government does place a large financial burden on the states- they are also, to an extent, unfair. The implementation of NCLB has been admittedly rocky: successful schools have been labeled as needing improvement; the alternative education program was an abject failure for the 2002-2003 school year; and an overwhelming majority of educators are wary of the legislation. Most of these and other problems can be chalked up to the economic recession and the drastic shock NCLB delivered to the nation’s school system. Every governmental institution in the United States is suffering from budget shortfalls, and the onerous financial burden that NCLB brings may be due to bad timing more than anything; the combined punch of NCLB and the budget crises facing states will hopefully be alleviated when America's economic situation improves. As the economy moves out of recession, we'll be able to tell with greater certainty whether NCLB is a burden that can be borne largely by the states. The problems brought on by NCLB may also be partially due to the drastic changes the bill has brought to public education. There will obviously be bugs when first implementing NCLB's provisions. Only time will tell whether the problems are sorted out or whether the bill is fundamentally flawed.

The Testing Debate: Implementation, Implementation, Implementation

The hardest sell in this bill is the testing provision. As I demonstrated in "The SAT Guru Culture," I skeeve traditional standardized testing and all it represents. But, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the tests Mr. Bush advocates may turn out to be anything but traditional. Standardized tests have, in the past, been (rightly) accused of dumbing down school curricula- teaching to the best being the prime example of this. They have the effect of destroying education and replacing it with test-preparedness classes. James Popham, a professor emeritus at UCLA and an expert on standardized testing, put it eloquently when he noted that "{t}he most profound misuse of educational tests these days is to employ a traditionally-constructed standardized achievement test... and use those scores as a reflection of school quality." But, despite reservations such as this, it appears that the implementation of standardized tests is what determines their effectiveness. If schools teach to the tests, then their efficacy will be destroyed. What makes me hopeful is that the tests mandated by NCLB are meant to measure how well the curricula of the nation's public schools are being taught, not serve as a separate apparatus as the SAT does. In other words, there must be a “curricularly aligned” test put in place. As Nicholas Lehman, the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, put it, a situation must be created where "the test prep is the course itself, so you don't have to worry about test prep as a separate free-floating thing."

It will be the implementation of NCLB that will determine its ultimate success or failure. Some states, notably New Jersey, are designing involved tests that move away from the ScanTron format popularized by the College Board and instead focus on student-produced responses in the form of short answer questions and essays. Other states are disappointedly sticking with the off-the-shelf tests of the Educational Testing Services and Kaplan. If states can be brought to design dynamic tests that coincide with extant curricula, then policy makers will have a baseline to work with for further educational improvement. Rather than destroying thinking in education, the tests- if implemented correctly- will serve as a tool to give students an educational base to work with, making sure that elementary knowledge is imparted that will then be used for creative thinking and analysis.

NCLB will go down in history as one of the most important pieces of legislation relating to education in American history. Whether it's remembered as a groundbreaking shift towards success or another sorry chapter in American public schools will be determined by its implementation. If the states and federal government rise to the challenge, then it's just possible that NCLB will prove to be the tool the state and federal governments need to turn schools around. What is truly revolutionary about this bill, though, beyond the new tests and teacher requirements, is that it represents a shift towards education for all Americans. No longer is it government policy to ignore the consistently poor scores of disadvantaged groups and focus on the white, middle-class majority. Instead, as Chester E. Finn Jr. wrote for The Weekly Standard, NCLB established "in Washington the view that what matters in a federal program is not what rules are followed, what services are provided, or what money is spent where, but whether young people are actually learning what they should." We just need to stay the course to realize this dream.


    • "Can This Bill Live up to its Name?"
    • "The President's Big Test"
    • "The New Rules"
  • Education World: No Educator Left Behind (
    • "Testing vs. Learning"
    • "New Teachers"
    • "Math Achievement"
    • "Constitutionally Protected School Prayer"
  • Wrightslaw (
    • "Parent's Guide to No Child Left Behind" by Suzanne Heath (The author is the research editor for Wrightslaw.)
  • The Federal Department of Education (
    • "Introduction: No Child Left Behind"
  • National Governor's Association Center for Best Practices (
    • "Advice for Governors from Veterans of Edcucation Reform"
    • "A Primer on No Child Left Behind"
  • The Economist (
    • "Please Sir, Can we Have More?" (This article appeared in the Dec. 20, 2001 print issue of this newsmagazine.)
  • The Weekly Standard (
  • The New York Times (
    • "Some School Districts Challenge Bush's Signature Education Law" byt Sam Dillon (This piece was a front-page article appearing in the Jan. 2,2004 issue of this paper.)
  • Thanks to the following for information that went into this write-up:
  • doyle,
  • Lometa,
  • C-Dawg for impromptu editing. Thanks!

Because this is such a contentious issue, I feel the best thing to do is to post noders' comments that are particularly illuminating and add something to the overall tenor of this write-up. (I corrected any minor spelling or grammar mistakes to make for easier reading.)

LaggedyAnne: I just read yours. As a teacher, I disagree with you, but I can see where you come from. I'll tell you why. 1) the highly qualified {teacher requirement}--those schools lack good professionals because nobody with marketability would ever work in such shit conditions... 2) The 4th grade reading statistic is stacked. For one, they test at the beginning of 4th grade, not the end. Also, 4th grade is the shift to expository text; some kids take longer. I'm in a good school. I can tell you it'll fail. It's already ruining our school's climate... Here in Missouri we're ignoring the easy way and going for honor. Our test isn't easy, and proficient is actually almost advanced. We're trying hard. It's definitely a gruelling process. I guarantee they teach to the test. Everyone does. It's awful. I just try to keep teaching in spite of it all.

Domin:All well and good, but the problem is we don't need anymore damned testing... We need to allow teachers to teach and make learning fun.

Lometa: Very well researched. It’s about time the administrators and school boards are held accountable for spending on hiring well-qualified teachers, staff and real educational objectives. To have a professional staff there must be professional expectations as well as professional pay. That has been a real stumbling block. One thing our {school} district has done to attract high quality teachers and staff is to offer college-level courses presented by an educator hired by the district specifically for that purpose. I think teaching towards the test will be dependent upon what testing instrument the state chooses to use. It’s not too surprising to see New Jersey leading the way in setting a standard. That’s the location of the Educational Testing Service, which generates many tests used in education in the United States including the SAT, GRE, and GMAT. One concern is white flight with the advent of Magnet and Charter Schools. The high school graduating class of 2004 {in my area} began their freshman year with a little over 1000 students. In four years it’s dropped to around 300. Some of it is due to dropouts but the population increase in Hispanic students has been patently obvious. An excellent presentation. This should be interesting to watch as it evolves over the next two years.

pylon: Very nice work on the writeup - extremely comprehensive! I must disagree with LagedyAnne in that "monies and incentives" must be provided. I attended both public and Catholic secondary education, and noticed that the Catholic schools can provide (per standardized scores published in our county) much better education, for about 1/3 of the cost, per student, than public schools do. Simply throwing more "monies and incentives" at failing schools will just encourage them to continue spending it un-wisely and promoting the failure rate. Just my two cents. Great job. :o)

RoyHoo33: Excellent wu- very well written. I must say that I am still on the fence about the whole issue though. In Colorado we have tests called CSAPS, which parents and students alike have a deep aversion to. Teachers spend the whole year preparing students for the tests, because if the students do poorly, the school loses funding without any real consequence for the student. Many students either do not take the test or do not try on the test and blindly mark answers. The bill has promise, but I think there {has} to be another way.

eliserh: The school prayer provisions of NCLB actually were already covered by a previous federal law (The Equal Access Act). Seems totally redundant. (My response: Mr. Bush must've inserted the provisions simply to show-off his credentials with the religious right that forms a major base of support for him.) Another provision {of NCLB} changed the way that military recruitment is done in high schools. It used to be that parents had to give their permission before info could be forwarded to recruiters. Now parents have to actively opt out. Interestingly, the Educational Testing Service, the largest standardised testing company in the country, opposed the standardized teesting provisions of {NCLB}. How can {NCLB} be considered to be devolving power over educaiton to the states? It mandates more federal oversight in education than has ever been required in US history.

Muse: I'm not sure about other states, but it seems Idaho's official policy on the 'highly qualified' teachers is that anyone who is currently qualified to teach in Idaho is now highly so.

Jongleur: The biggest problem, that I can tell, is that schools and states can make up their own standardized tests - thus encouraging the tests to be dumbed down. Secondly, schools have to show improvement EVERY year. This sounds like a good idea, up to a point. It has the potential to punish excellent schools. But maybe they can take it. And finally - it's nice to say you need professional teachers, but if you want professionals, you have to pay professional wages, and that never goes over well, particularly among conservative Republicans, because teacher wages come from property taxes. I'd teach in schools if they payed me. But they won''t pay up, so I'll be teaching at the college level, where the students actually want to learn (or at least more of them do) and I will get compensated for my overeducation and skills. (My response: I completely agree that teacher salaries need to be raised and note that in the section on my opinion. NCLB also avoids sanctioning schools until they fail for several consecutive years- it's not an immediate thing.)

For further reading and a different take on this subject, take a look at Laggedy Anne's Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

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