Perspectives on the No Child Left Behind Act

January 11, 2012 17 min read
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Good intentions—and even strong academic content knowledge—are insufficient qualifications to be an effective teacher, especially in our most challenging schools.


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.

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2012 edition of Education Week as Perspectives on the No Child Left Behind Act


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