NCLB: Perspectives on the Law

January 05, 2012 34 min read
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In recognition of the 10th anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act, Education Week Commentary asked leaders in the K-12 community to consider the law’s impact.

Seventeen writers contributed brief essays:


Mary Bell

Really improving student learning for all children takes education policy that is firmly rooted in building and retaining a strong teaching corps. It takes a holistic evaluation of how our schools are doing, given the myriad academic and social expectations we have for them. And it takes meaningful intervention—not silver bullets—to make struggling schools better and good schools great.

As a teacher for more than 30 years, I know how essential high-quality educators are. When NCLB was introduced, the importance it placed on getting highly qualified educators in every classroom was a positive step. In my current role as president of Wisconsin’s largest educators’ union, I’ve seen teachers in my state embrace educator effectiveness, including helping to craft an innovative statewide framework that calls for balanced assessment designed to improve outcomes for children.

See Also

NCLB Turns 10
See more content related to the anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act, including Commentaries, links to Education Week’s coverage over the decade, readers’ comments about the law, and a glossary of selected NCLB terms. View the complete collection.

However, NCLB falls flat when it comes to its simplistic approach to measuring a school’s success or failure. Teachers and schools should be held accountable for their performance, but the accountability system must measure more than the results of one fill-in-the-bubble test.

It’s time for the nation to recognize that multiple measures, some not easy to quantify, are the best picture of a student’s or a school’s success. Measures that point to logical improvements in practice and in addressing the real needs of students will be more likely to produce lasting change because they seek to understand rather than blame.

In Wisconsin, we have engaged parents in forums across the state; parents told us that, when measuring the success of schools, nothing is more essential than taking a complete approach.

Parents and educators have much to say when it comes to efforts to improve school accountability. As the national discussion continues, their voices must not be ignored.

Mary Bell is a teacher in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., and the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council.


Linda Darling-Hammond

After 10 years of missed opportunity under No Child Left Behind, we must learn from our experience to accelerate academic progress and improve the quality of learning in American schools.

Lesson #1: Don’t overreach. The federal role should not be to micromanage educational decisions, but to enable strategic investments that will increase opportunity. The quest for 100 percent proficiency has focused attention on boosting scores, but it has also narrowed the curriculum, encouraged exclusions of struggling students, and undermined confidence in federal initiatives.

Meanwhile, federal efforts to prescribe top-down reforms have often wreaked havoc in the field. From the dismantling of many successful local reading programs under Reading First to more recent requirements for turnaround models that research has found ineffective, federal overreach can leave students further behind.

Lesson #2: Focus on genuine equity. NCLB helped us understand the severity of achievement gaps between different student groups, but it has not provided sufficient resources in strategic ways to address the sources of those gaps. The small federal allocation makes hardly a dent in our huge state and local funding disparities, and is not being spent in high-leverage ways. National education policy must expect states to be transparent about the availability of resources to students and to pursue funding equity.

Lesson #3: Invest strategically. The Title I formula should better target low-income states and communities and support investments known to improve student achievement: quality preschool, high-quality preparation and professional development for teachers and school leaders, wraparound services and community schools, and summer learning opportunities.

Finally, the federal government should learn from high-achieving nations and encourage the use of more thoughtful performance-based assessments. Used to inform curriculum improvements and teacher development, rather than to punish students, teachers, or schools, such assessments would support higher-quality instruction and more engaged learning.

Linda Darling-Hammond is the Charles E. Ducommun professor of education at Stanford University. She is the author of The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future (Teachers College Press, 2010).


Kati Haycock

Like every law, the No Child Left Behind Act has flaws, and some of them are big. But its insistence on equity, transparency, and accountability is right and necessary. The law says that all schools must make progress with all groups of students, and that every community must be given information on how well its schools and its children are doing. That has transformed the way we all think about education.

The increased transparency spurred by NCLB has revealed some ugly truths about inequity in our public education system. Despite the core American belief that education levels the playing field, and that any student who works hard in school can build the foundation of a successful life, our education system stacks the deck against poor kids and kids of color. Rather than giving the students who come to school with the least more of everything that we know contributes to strong academic achievement, we too often give them less—in some cases, far less. We know that those policies and practices exacerbate our nation’s yawning achievement gaps. NCLB has laid these gaps bare, exposing the difference between our beliefs and our actions. And that difference is embarrassing and painful.

So it’s hardly surprising that there are efforts to turn back the clock to the time when we pretended that gaps didn’t exist, that everything was fine, and that everyone was doing about as well as could be expected. A return to old ways may make some adults feel better, but it would be devastating for low-income students, students of color, English-language learners, students with disabilities and, frankly, for our nation as a whole. We’d not only be committing economic suicide by undercutting the life chances of more than half our young people, but we also would allow ourselves to slip once again into a comfortable lie, one that would prevent America from living up to its ideals.

Kati Kaycock is the president of the Education Trust, which is based in Washington.


Kaya Henderson

Ten years can seem like an eternity in education. It’s nearly the span of a student’s academic career from kindergarten to high school. Ten years ago seems like a lifetime in the District of Columbia Public Schools, as well. Ten years ago, the district’s enrollment was declining by thousands every year, teachers received no feedback on their performance, and no districtwide academic plan was in place.

The No Child Left Behind Act and the accompanying conversation about education set the stage for the improvements of recent years and the dramatic gains ahead for DCPS. NCLB helped identify specific challenges and made data-based decisionmaking the norm. Because of the conversation the law started, DCPS can now focus on raising achievement levels for all students, including those with special needs; narrowing the achievement gap; and ensuring that parents have the information needed to hold us accountable.

Ten years after No Child Left Behind, the District of Columbia is on track to create revolutionary change in our schools. What we’re doing is part of a thriving, growing, innovative movement here that is going to make our schools better, our teachers more effective, our parents more engaged, and, most importantly, our students more successful.

With effective teachers in every classroom, a curriculum that is aligned to rigorous academic standards, more and higher-quality professional development across the system, and a robust set of academic interventions, we believe we have put the pieces in place to radically change what happens in schools here and close the achievement gap.

We have seen significant gains reflected in both the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment Test, or DC-CAS, and in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, over the past five years. However, we still have a ton of work left to do. Working with our teachers, school leaders, parents, and community members, we must dramatically improve achievement at our lowest-performing schools while raising performance districtwide. NCLB has not solved the challenges we face, but it has changed the way we all think about preparing our students for college and careers.

Kaya Henderson is the chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools.


Eugene W. Hickok

Ten years ago, few in Congress, the White House, or the education establishment had any real understanding of what was coming when the No Child Left Behind Act became law. Education reform had been President George W. Bush’s highest domestic priority, and it became Congress’ as well. HR 1 was passed in the waning hours of the first year of George Bush’s presidency and the aftermath of 9/11. It had broad bipartisan support, and yet almost no one seemed to anticipate what it would mean for classrooms across the nation.

Since then, NCLB has attracted growing numbers of critics. Many seem opposed to any serious attempt to reform and improve education in this country, and many remain poorly informed about the law’s requirements of states, districts, and schools.

For some, NCLB is about testing and sanctions. For others, it is about ensuring accountability, confronting poor performance, and providing more opportunities for students stuck in schools that don’t work.

Almost everyone seems willing to admit that the very idea of every student performing at grade level is a fantasy invoked for political purposes. Today, there is broad bipartisan interest in changing the law, but little consensus on what changes are needed.

NCLB transformed American education in three important ways. First, the achievement gap between low-income and minority students and their wealthier white peers is now an issue that education and America can no longer ignore or hide. Second, the nation’s attention is now focused on results in education, not spending. Money still matters, but the emphasis is on what money buys in terms of student achievement. Finally, NCLB has led many Americans to ask questions about their children’s education. That can only be a good thing.

The conversation has changed. It will be interesting to see where it takes us.

Eugene W. Hickok served as the undersecretary and deputy U.S. secretary of education during President George W. Bush’s first term. He is also a former state secretary of education for Pennsylvania. Mr. Hickok currently serves as a senior policy adviser to both Whiteboard Advisors, an education consulting firm based in Washington, and Dutko Grayling, a lobbying and public-relations firm, also in Washington.


Jack Jennings

Imagine a world without the No Child Left Behind Act.

We would not know by school and school district the specific achievement gaps between various groups of students.

Educators and government would not have made as many efforts to reduce those gaps—for instance, between low-income students and more advantaged students.

We would not have put a major emphasis on teaching limited-English-speaking children both English and subject-matter content.

Districts and states would not have focused as intensively on improving the lowest-performing schools.

Teachers would not have available extensive data on student academic performance.

Improving student achievement would not have been such an intense subject of public debate.

The challenge for us is to weigh the good that came out of this controversial venture and preserve that, while we excise undesirable features."

The states would not have seen the downside of having 50 different sets of academic standards for reading and math and not have decided to develop high-quality common standards, which almost every state has adopted.

The states would not have moved to develop more sophisticated assessments for these common standards, making it possible to measure student progress across the states.

Many of the good results of NCLB can be forgotten as we dwell on the bad effects—namely, too much emphasis on test scores, unfair labeling of schools as failures, crude measures for accountability, a lack of adequate funds to comply, and mandates to set aside too much money for ineffective tutoring and school choice.

The challenge for us is to weigh the good that came out of this controversial venture and preserve that, while we excise undesirable features.

Lastly, we ought to remember that totally eliminating national and state efforts to improve education means going backwards. The United States will not have better schools if it is left to each of our 14,000 school districts.

We are one nation.

Jack Jennings is the president and chief executive officer of the Center on Education Policy, in Washington.


Lindsay Jones

The No Child Left Behind Act shined a light on the academic achievement of students with disabilities, giving every educator a stake in their performance. As a result, students with disabilities and special educators now have an important seat at the table for discussions about student and school achievement. Schools are now more motivated than ever to ensure that students with disabilities access the general education curriculum, are held to high standards, and receive the supports they need.

But aligning the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and NCLB continues to be a challenge. NCLB’s single focus on large-scale testing, the constant threat of sanctions, lack of promised funding, and limited support for educators have meant that states and districts spend too much time and money developing assessments and teaching to them. While annual assessments provide some useful information about systems, they only do so if they are accurate, and the ones being used now often fail to measure what students with disabilities actually know.

Moreover, NCLB’s overemphasis on testing and sanctions created a perverse incentive in some schools to minimize participation of students with disabilities in general assessments, essentially hiding their performance for fear of sanctions. The good news is that many more schools have risen to the challenge and embraced innovative practices that support achievement, like co-teaching and the “universal design for learning” model. The Council for Exceptional Children‘s experience with NCLB proves that excluding students with disabilities—and those with gifts and talents whose needs remain unmet by NCLB—from education initiatives will only lead to failure and stagnation.

NCLB taught us that we cannot allow averages of student performance to mask the reality of underachievement for any student. Our challenge now is to ensure that schools and teachers have the resources and support they need to embrace innovative practices and ensure all students succeed.

Lindsay Jones is the senior director for policy and advocacy services for the Council for Exceptional Children, in Arlington, Va.


Harold Kwalwasser

There are at least two great challenges in renewing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law known in its current edition as No Child Left Behind.

One is the tension between Washington’s desire to dictate what it considers “good policy” and the reality that the best school district is one that gives capable leaders wide discretion to adapt to the diverse possibilities each faces in providing quality instruction.

What complicates the tension is that neither side is all right, or all wrong. The Obama administration has some good ideas, like pushing for robust information technology in the schools and credible teacher evaluation, but it cannot hope to run any school from Washington. And local advocates have to acknowledge that many districts are not to be trusted, either because of dodgy intradistrict funding that disadvantages low-income schools or because of simple laziness that leads them to resist the adoption of new ideas, no matter how good.

The second challenge is recognizing that laws often do not allow for things to evolve over time.

An example: In 2002, when NCLB was signed into law, schools did not have the databases or instructional strategies that today allow for frequent formative assessments and rapid interventions. Therefore, a decade ago, outside tutoring for students in failing schools by for-profit companies looked like a good solution. Today, with advances in technology and testing, many schools are better positioned to conduct tutoring or intensive one-on-one work with their students than outside tutors. But the law remains stuck in that 2002 vision—as do the large funding allocations for private tutoring.

So, we need to balance the local-federal tension, especially when it comes to writing rules for accountability and Title I spending. And we need to be careful not to write in programs and rules that can be outdated by the time the ink is dry.

All of that may explain why it has taken so long to rewrite the law. Perhaps candid acknowledgment of the challenge will help get Congress to a reasonable compromise.

Harold Kwalwasser, a former general counsel of the Los Angeles Unified School District, consults and writes on education reform. His forthcoming book, Renewal, A User’s Guide to Remaking American Schools for the 21st Century, will be published this month by Rowman & Littlefield.


Lillian Lowery

Ten years ago, the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement that states report disaggregated student test scores put the nation on notice, reminding us that “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” For too long, aggregated results had masked serious deficiencies among many of our country’s most vulnerable students.

While this current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has its flaws, NCLB’s great legacy is that it brought accountability for states, districts, schools, and educators to the forefront. President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have addressed one of the law’s major flaws through the U.S. Department of Education’s ESEA flexibility, or “waiver,” process.

Now, it is the responsibility of states to ensure that every child in our schools learns, that teachers and leaders are held accountable for every student’s year-over-year growth, and that we close persistent achievement gaps between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students and among children of different ethnic groups.

In Delaware, we have implemented a computer-adaptive, growth-model state assessment that measures individual students’ progress from fall to winter to spring. These data inform teachers’ instruction throughout the year, letting educators and parents know in what areas which children need more defined academic intervention and who among them needs “stretch” goals to enrich academic mastery. We are now working to integrate knowledge about student improvement as one aspect of our statewide educator-evaluation system.

As a former teacher, principal, and superintendent, I understand the sensitivity and challenge of creating a system that fairly measures strong work and identifies areas for improvement. Most of the teachers from whom I have heard during my three years as state secretary of education have said that they agree with their evaluations being based in part on student performance, provided that the student-performance measure is fair and is based on student growth.

These educators recognize that if we are going to better meet the needs of our students, we must be able to identify teachers who excel and those who need more support. Well-developed, thoughtful appraisal systems not only provide data to improve outcomes for children, but also provide root-cause analyses, such as flawed curricula alignment, outdated teacher-preparation programs, or professional-development programs that need revision to enhance teacher knowledge and professional growth.

All of this work comes back to the classroom and our obligation to meet the needs of every child who enters it. The federal government, through the U.S. Department of Education, has created an environment, framework, and incentives to foster a national, collaborative call to action. Theory based on sound research is needed, but practical, data-informed implementation of what we know works is critical. States must step up to meet this challenge.

Lillian Lowery is the secretary of education for Delaware. She is a former teacher and administrator. In March of 2010, the U.S. Department of Education selected Delaware as the first state to be awarded a Race to the Top grant.


Tom Luna

No Child Left Behind reminds me of the old Clint Eastwood movie “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”

The Good: It created a standards-based education system in which schools are accountable for every child.

The Bad: It is a one-size-fits-all model that is difficult to implement in rural states like Idaho.

The Ugly: The federal government has set goals and then also prescribed the programs states must use to meet those goals. If those programs don’t work, states are held accountable.

While the No Child Left Behind Act, which was signed into law 10 years ago, has accomplished its goals of providing accountability and improving student achievement, it has now become a stumbling block to further progress. It is four years overdue for reauthorization.

For these reasons, Congress and the administration must reauthorize this law now and make the changes necessary to improve student achievement.

States are demanding change, and, in the absence of reauthorization, they have taken the lead. Idaho and 29 other states reformed education this past year.

In Idaho, the Students Come First laws will create 21st-century classrooms in every school, make sure every student has a highly effective teacher every year, and increase transparency and accountability at all levels. The state also implemented a growth model to move toward a new system of increased accountability tied to proficiency, as well as growth.

As Idaho’s state superintendent and the current president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, I strongly supported the legislation that moved through the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee in 2011 because it would keep the good parts of No Child Left Behind and improve the bad and ugly parts. It would move to a growth model that lets us focus on those students who are not on grade level, as well as those students who are above grade level.

With these changes, we can build on the progress made under No Child Left Behind and move achievement for all students forward in Idaho and across the country.

Tom Luna is the Idaho superintendent of public instruction and the president of the Council of Chief State School Officers.


Neal McCluskey

In 1975, assessing the first 10 years of Title I, RAND Corp. researcher Milbrey McLaughlin found that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was failing. No one in Washington, however, wanted to take it on because “the teachers, administrators, and others whose salaries are paid by Title I, or whose budgets are balanced by its funds, are ... a more powerful constituency than those ... disillusioned by its unfulfilled promise.”

Basically, the law was a victim of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, a situation that hasn’t changed in a decade of No Child Left Behind, the current version of the ESEA.

The root problem is that the people with the most at stake in a policy are the most motivated to participate in the politics of it, giving them disproportionate power. In education, those people are the school employees whose very livelihoods depend on the system. And they want what everyone, ideally, wants: generous compensation and no accountability.

This basic reality is why for decades Washington dumped money onto schools regardless of performance. It’s why, once taxpayers got so fed up they demanded change, politicians created accountability regimes they never really enforced. And it’s why, when you dig into them, National Assessment of Educational Progress scores provide no meaningful evidence that NCLB has worked.

Unfortunately, some people think that the solution is to double down on government power by imposing a federal curriculum. Not “voluntary, common standards,” but standards forced onto states by the Race to the Top and NCLB waivers and accompanied by federally funded tests.

The idea is that a single standard will keep states from “gaming” accountability. But this assumes that those who would be held accountable won’t gut standards at the federal level, an irrational assumption.

We don’t need more federal intervention, but to sidestep imbalanced incentives by letting parents control education funds and educators teach as they see fit. Then parents wouldn’t have to match hugely disproportionate political power, and accountability would be rooted in satisfying the people the schools are supposed to serve.

Neal McCluskey is the associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, in Washington, and the author of Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).


Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana

Imagine sitting in a classroom where you cannot understand what the teacher says or what is written on the board. That is the challenge facing English-language learners in our public schools today, and it was the one I faced in 1963, two years before the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was originally adopted. Now, imagine a school that was not accountable for the success of its English-learner, racial, special education, and socioeconomic student subgroups.

In 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act, the latest version of the ESEA, finally promised to hold every school accountable for the success of each child. After a decade, NCLB still elicits strong reactions and mixed reviews. Whether viewed as an ill-fated federal sorting system or a well-intended national commitment to close the achievement gap, everyone agrees that the core promise of NCLB is still a work in progress.

Having served as a district superintendent and then as an assistant U.S. secretary of education, I recognize the power and the limits of the law. The key notion of accountability has not been defined similarly across the country, and measuring proficiency also varies drastically. But districts can no longer obscure individual student failure; they can employ student data to make needed changes. Most significantly, however, as a former English-language learner, I cherish the promise of a fully realized NCLB. This law successfully triggered a national conversation about closing the achievement gap.

Now that I once again am a superintendent in a diverse urban school district, I also appreciate how hard educators work to meet NCLB accountability requirements. I also see the value of accountability when the instructional practices harmonize with the needs of underperforming students. NCLB’s biggest failure was not giving credit to teachers and schools for individual student growth. But this limitation can be corrected.

As Congress moves to reauthorize the law, we should not forget the best that came from this groundbreaking NCLB legislation. Our future as a nation hinges on creating pathways to success for every child. Reauthorization will affirm the national belief that public education’s highest purpose is to ensure that every child, regardless of his or her background, has the opportunity to succeed, thrive, and serve our great nation.

Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana is the superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District in California. She served in the Obama administration as the U.S. Department of Education’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. She previously was the superintendent of California’s Pomona Unified School District and a bilingual 1st grade teacher.


Renee Moore

A teacher friend shared a heart-wrenching story of a 12-year-old quadriplegic student who arrived at school functioning at a 1st grade level. Although the student improved to 3rd and 4th grade levels in reading and math, respectively, the child was forced to take, but was unable to pass, the 6th grade state test with her age-level peers. She and her teacher were deemed failures. The child’s parents chose to homeschool her rather than continue to submit her to that type of frustrating humiliation.

Other teachers and I have witnessed such horrific scenes all over the country since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which now legally trumps the hard-won protections of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Despite its lofty promises, the reality of No Child Left Behind for many of our traditionally underserved student populations has been the increase in the number of those who have dropped out or been pushed out of the educational system into the unprotected waters of high school diploma mills, unemployment, welfare, and the prison industry.

Similarly, NCLB promised to put a highly qualified teacher in every classroom, yet the result has been exactly the opposite. As my teacher colleagues and I noted in our book Teaching 2030, “the law’s Highly Qualified Teacher (HQT) provision [has proved] to be more of a low bar for states to clear than a lofty goal to achieve. Focused more on content background than high across-the-board teaching standards, the HQT rules actually opened the gates for alternative certification"—a cheap fix for chronic teacher shortages and high staff turnover.

Good intentions—and even strong academic content knowledge—are insufficient qualifications to be an effective teacher, especially in our most challenging schools.

Renee Moore has taught English for more than 20 years, is certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and serves on its board of directors. She was the 2001 Mississippi Teacher of the Year and is a co-author of Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools (Teachers College Press, 2011).


Michael Mulgrew

No matter its intent, the No Child Left Behind Act has been a disaster for New York City and many other urban districts.

Under cover of this law, the mayor and the chancellor in New York turned our city schools into test-preparation factories. They created disincentives to teach poor and high-need children. And they sucked the life out of teaching.

It didn’t start out that way. I was teaching at-risk high school kids in 2003 when I joined the team of educators that wrote New York state’s application for NCLB funding. We welcomed the law as a tool to raise achievement and help students like mine.

But the way the law was constructed made that a false hope. The goal of getting every student meeting standards by 2014 with current resources and strategies was impossible. Realizing this, many states lowered the bars on their achievement tests, and the federal government let them get away with it. Curriculum here in New York was pared down to a steady diet of English/language arts and math drills, while arts, science, and civics fell by the wayside.

And accountability? In New York City, that was reduced to a single point on a number scale, based almost entirely on a corrupted state test. There was zero accountability for the bureaucrats who created this mess.

The federal government is playing the wrong role in education now. It is pushing “reforms” like individual merit pay and early-childhood testing that defy the research. It is trying to improve teacher quality with narrow data. It is supporting charters at the expense of district schools.

Here’s what the federal government can and should do:

• Use the purse strings to ensure that poor and high-need children get an equal chance at a quality education;

• Promote a reliable common measure of achievement, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, to hold districts and states accountable; and

• Stop the fraudsters—the growing number of fly-by-night schools and colleges that use public school students as profit centers.

Michael Mulgrew is the president of the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.


Susan Ohanian

Ten years of the No Child Left Behind Act has brought a steady erosion of the values that should be central to public education. The rise of standardized tests and “no excuses” accountability has forced students, teachers, administrators, and parents to enter circles of Hell even Dante never envisioned.

Below, an NCLB timeline from those on the front lines:

2002: “We are the State, which has brought students out of the wilderness of teacher-led classrooms and into the kingdom of test prep. Thou shalt have no other guidance before thee, and then it will follow as night follows day that No Child is Left Behind.”
— “The Ten Commandments of No Child Left Behind,” from my website.
2003: “My 3rd grader brings home 45 pages of multiple-choice, test-prep drill sheets.”
— Email to me, from a parent in Virginia
2004: “What’s putting me over the edge is there’s no joy in teaching.”
— California teacher “who talked openly on the condition her name not be used” in the newspaper article in which she was quoted, “Teacher’s Time Rarely Her Own/Federal Mandates Limit Classroom Ingenuity” (San Francisco Chronicle, March 21, 2004).
2005: The stories of 12-year-old Paige in Chicago and 10-year-old Mariah in Palmetto, Fla., both of whom were assigned to 3rd grade for three years in a row.
“A Child Held Behind,” (The New York Times, Jan. 16, 2005) and “Poor Schools Work Hard to Improve Scores on FCAT,” (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, May 13, 2005)
2006: “BABY DIBELS Screening Tool—Individual Growth Development Indicators” (for 3-year-olds)
— School bulletin on Baby DIBELS cited in “Attention Parents of Young Children” (Feb. 7, 2006)
2006: “My son already hates school, and he’s just halfway through kindergarten.”
— L. J. Williamson in “My Kid, a Burnout at 5" (Los Angeles Times, Feb. 27, 2006)
2007: “Highly qualified” means sticking to the script.
— Email to me from a Buffalo, N.Y., teacher
2008: “The body count from No Child Left Behind grows daily and one wonders when the perpetrators will be called to account. In a decent nation, the larger society holds the government accountable. In a program like NCLB, the government holds the citizenry accountable.”
— Gerald Bracey, “Chew on This” (The Huffington Post, April 21, 2008)
2009: “The Obama people—who promised revolutionary change—have no ideas other than to tighten the grip of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program on the teachers and children of the United States.”
— Diane Ravitch, “Obama Gives Bush a Third Term in Education” (The Huffington Post, June 13, 2009)
2010: When he heard my student vomited during The Test, the “first question the principal asks me is ‘Did anything hit the test booklet?’ Evidently there is some major procedure involving Fort Knox and some security company trained by the CIA and FBI that needs to be followed when someone barfs on the book!”
— Tina, “Neither Sleet Nor Hail Nor Vomit” (Teachers.Net, March 10, 2010)
2011: “I now have to give a total of more than 27,000 check marks or grades for my class of 25 kindergartners per year.”
— Nancy Creech, “Kindergarten Teacher Details ‘Lunacy’ of Standardized Tests for Kids” (Washington Post Answer Sheet blog,, July 5, 2011)
Summing Up: “The consequences of NCLB are far more damaging to our National Security than Iraq ever was.”
— Signer #24,432, Educator Roundtable Petition to End NCLB

Susan Ohanian is a longtime teacher and the author of 25 books on education policy and practice. She launched a website opposing the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002.


Paul G. Pinsky

The No Child Left Behind Act cast a much-needed focus on the achievement gap, but offered few, if any, answers on how to improve teaching. Moreover, its single-minded use of high-stakes testing to assess progress seriously diverted attention from that important task.

These tests might reveal which schools improved their scores, but they offer no detailed guidance to effective instruction. This blunt-instrument approach also fostered teaching to the test and encouraged cheating.

Large instructional gains, based on NCLB-required tests, have been hailed in Atlanta, Baltimore, and the District of Columbia with accolades, national awards, and booming headlines. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised one of the Baltimore schools “as a model for the country.”

The praise, unfortunately, was premature when news revealed the test-fixing in at least three Baltimore schools, including the one that was labeled a “model for the country;" systematic cheating in Atlanta’s school system; and improprieties in the District of Columbia.

Placing the focus on—and demanding—"good teaching” is what reaps good test scores. Instituting high, rigorous teaching standards can garner the same outcomes NCLB originally sought.

Sadly, NCLB’s key element, high-stakes testing, has now metastasized. It has spread and become the foundation for NCLB’s sequel: the Race to the Top, or RTT, competitive-grant initiative. The message was clear: Teacher evaluations should be based on student test scores.

Again, this approach judges teachers on numbers, just as NCLB judged school success, with neither providing guidance to improve instruction.

My own state of Maryland ran so fast to the altar of high-stakes testing to win RTT money that it forgot to look at, and has possibly jeopardized, a very successful standards-based evaluation system in our own state—one praised, in fact, by the secretary of education.

Unless we consider a careful course correction, we may be destined to repeat the same error, cheating scandals and all.

Paul G. Pinsky is a Maryland state senator. A Democrat, he chairs the education, health, and environment Senate education subcommittee. He taught high school history for 20 years and is a specialist in teacher quality for an affiliate of the Maryland State Education Association.


Paul G. Vallas

Whether you are a fan or a critic of No Child Left Behind, one thing we can all agree on is that the legislation certainly formalized the federal government’s role as an agent of accountability and a promoter of expanded school choice. Whether or not you believe that the funding increases were adequate in light of the expanded federal mandates, and I do not, at the very least NCLB should get credit for institutionalizing the concept that expanded accountability for schools must be coupled with increased financial support to be fair and effective.

Arguably, NCLB’s greatest positive impact has resulted from the law’s requirement that testing data be disaggregated so that schools can be evaluated, and then held accountable, for the performance of all of their constituents. The intent was to ensure that no child—regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, geographic location, or special education needs—would be left behind. The law has a black eye, however, when it comes to the supplemental educational services, or SES, mandate, which was aimed at providing students in failing schools the additional educational supports they need to improve. In the drive to meet the needs of students in struggling schools, No Child Left Behind required schools to engage approved SES providers and gave parents the right to select from various companies. Many of these providers were nontraditional, frequently for-profit, and often unproven or substandard. Yet the legislation failed to demand the same level of accountability from those providers that it demanded of the schools themselves.

In summation, I think NCLB’s legacy is that it has been the next powerful phase in the federal government’s efforts to improve schools by demanding greater accountability and providing more resources, as begun by the Clinton administration, and it provided a solid base for the current administration to build upon with its ambitious Race to the Top initiative.

Paul G. Vallas is the interim superintendent of the Bridgeport, Conn., schools. He was the superintendent of the Recovery School District in Louisiana and the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, and the School District of Philadelphia. He led international school-rebuilding projects in post-earthquake Haiti and Chile.

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2012 edition of Education Week


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