This paper researches the history of the causal problems that led to U.S. government policy resulting in the No Child Left Behind Act. It explains how the topic became a public policy problem, who placed it on the policy agenda and when, what the Act does and how it works, the institutions that have acted according to its requirements so far, and the current situation as of 2012.
Background and Legislative History
According to a U.S. Department of Education document “A Guide to Education and No Child Left Behind” (2004) the origins of the Act and the principles on which it is based can be traced to the Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of education in May 1954.
Wolff (1997) stated that the verdict in the Brown case was a judicial landmark in the U.S. because it effectively overturned “separate but equal” racial segregation principles established in an interpretation of the 14th Amendment in the much earlier case of Plessy v. Ferguson. That Plessy decision effectively meant that U.S. society was segregated in many aspects; not just in schools and colleges but on buses, in restrooms, using drinking fountains and even separate black and white witness stands in courts. In effect, the “separate but equal” concept had in reality produced a very unequal society in which, following the decision in the Brown case, non-whites had to battle for true equality through civil rights marches and other actions in a campaign for true equality. Wolff mentions a prayer pilgrimage for integrated schools in May 1957, attended by circa 35,000. Then in 1959, a petition signed by 400,000 was presented to Congress, again urging the President to implement an urgent program to integrate the country’s schools.
Then, as described in “1964 Civil Rights Act” (n.d.), John F Kennedy campaigned before his 1960 election for a new act to protect civil rights. In a televised speech in June 1963, he forcibly reminded his audience of the inequalities that disadvantaged the blacks in America, but was assassinated in that November while his Civil Rights Bill was still going through Congress. Lyndon B Johnson took up the cause and – despite strong opposition from factions in the southern states – on 15th June that year the Civil Rights Act passed into law. That legislation made it illegal to discriminate on racial grounds in any public location such as a restaurant, a theater or hotel, and permitted projects federal funding to be withdrawn if racial discrimination was found. Also, firms were obliged to offer equal opportunities in employment.
Then in 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) also became law, as described in Hanna’s article in the summer 2005 issue of “Ed.”, the magazine of the Harvard School of Education. Her article states that following Kennedy’s assassination “President Lyndon B. Johnson made education and civil rights the foundation of his War on Poverty”.
Following the ESEA success came the task of ensuring that schools were observing the laws regarding racial integration, which was not always consistent. In the following years various amendments or “reauthorizations” were implemented to ensure that Act’s intents were fulfilled. One such in the Clinton era in 1994 effectively rewrote ESEA so that all states introduced a standards-based philosophy into their schools. Children were subjected to tests to measure their abilities and progress against defined standards.
Then, in his 2000 election campaign, George W Bush declared that a high priority for new legislation during his first year as President of the United States was to overhaul Federal education policy. At the very center of his plan was to introduce a compulsory annual tests regime in U.S. schools, thereby monitoring students’ progress and to penalize both states and individual schools if low scores in tests were not improved upon. This was a way to facilitate closer observance to ensure that equality actually was being achieved.
According to the report “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001”(n.d.) by the OLPA, Representative John Boehner introduced the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) on 22 March 2001. Following committee hearings and amendments in March through May, the House passed the Act (as amended) on June 14 and it was eventually signed into law by President George W Busch on January 8, 2002. It was noted in “A Guide to Education and No Child Left Behind” that the final votes taken in Senate and in Congress produced overwhelming majorities in both cases.
Effects of the NCLB
According to “A Guide to Education and No Child Left Behind” the NCLB Act “ensures accountability and flexibility as well as increased federal support for education”. It also follows the principle implicit in the Brown v. Board verdict by continuing to develop a fairer, more inclusive system of school-based education.
Jorgensen and Hoffman (2003) published an assessment report on the NCLB Act. They reported that NCLB introduced a new era of accountability, with involvement at local level and including parents, to ensure that children were learning as they should. Their report quoted Rod Paige, U.S. Secretary of Education, who said that the aim of NCLB “is to see every child in America––regardless of ethnicity, income, or background––achieve high standards.” Under NCLB, funding provided to schools has been made directly linked with accountability. Working with state-defined standards for the various grades, schools must ensure every student acquires the expected skills and knowledge levels. As the authors noted, “All means all.” The prescribed NCLB reporting systems require that every individual student is included in the data reported.
Jorgensen and Hoffman reported that at the state level, NCLB requires that each state creates an assessment system that tracks – against commonly applied instructional standards – the progress of every student. However, the NCLB regulations allow schools and school districts to have flexibility of control of teaching methods, yet at the same time remaining accountable for the results obtained. States have to assess all students in both reading and math, from third through to eighth grades. Tests are based on state standards and the results published so that performance of any school is available for all to see. In addition, schools have to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) of disadvantaged children. Schools unable to show the required progress are not just assisted in that regard, but may also be subject to corrective procedures. The states themselves are also accountable under NCLB; they are required to submit detailed reports about their plans, their standards, their reporting procedures and so on.
In return for that increased duty of accountability, states have been given much greater flexibility and control of just how they utilize federal funding made available to them. Through state administration, schools are able to assign funding as best needed, for example to help keep the best teachers, or for the purposes of professional development or training, without needing to seek federal approval separately. The states are also afforded more freedom and control in respect of programs established and operated for students learning the English language.
Jorgensen and Hoffman also point out that parents having children who are attending schools they consider might be unsafe or under-performing have the options within NCLB regulations to arrange transfer to a different school or additional tutoring. The scope of the NCLB includes the facility to support schools in the identification and utilization of successful instructional programs and to make funds available for scientifically-based teaching systems, and for teachers to use in enhancing their effective teaching methods and skills.
Jorgensen and Hoffman’s summary statement is well worth repeating verbatim:
Education opens doors to children for a lifetime and leads to their success. NCLB is the engine driving a new era of accountability for every child’s learning journey. Children who are being left behind must be identified and states will have the responsibility to provide the resources to teach every child how to read, to apply mathematics, to study, to learn—to succeed.
Although that summary statement is inspiring, not everyone saw the effects of NCLB in a positive light. Toppo (2007) writing in USA Today, discussed a range of effects of NCLB, as perceived by schoolteachers and others. Responses were mixed, although those views and reactions to NCLB pre-dated a then upcoming reauthorization of NCLB.
Views reported in Toppo’s article include that of Barbara Adderley, principal of Stanton Elementary School in Philadelphia. She feels her days are dominated by “talking about or looking at data” and attending meetings about the progress of every student. However, at her school, whereas in 2003 the children meeting state-defined reading standards were less than two in every 10, by 2005 that figure had grown to seven in 10. Toppo did point out in his article that maybe more time was needed to confirm that the NCLB was improving education nationally, partly because not all schools started immediately to follow NCLB regulations. He quotes Margaret Spellings, U.S. Education Secretary, as saying that the law wasn’t fully enacted in all U.S. States until 2006. However, Toppo maintained that NCLB has had a big influence on the school day for children and gave five major points on the ways it brought changes to schools:
- Although senior education officials like and support NCLB, teachers generally dislike the mandated testing, especially for the younger children.
- Because of the specific math and English teaching rules under NCLB, schools find they have less time to teach other subjects, so narrowing the curriculum.
- Children previously overlooked (under-achievers and minority groups) now receive much more attention and even additional tutoring.
- Schools that consistently don’t meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets can be made to add free after-school tutoring; lengthening the school day.
- NCLB’s annual reading funding of circa $1billion targets the 5,000+ schools that teach America’s poorest 1.8 million children, though not all teachers support the teaching methods used, especially the DIBELS test method.
The Situation in 2012
Martin (July 2012) in an article published by CNN, discusses the current situation with the NCLB. Because critics complain that the Act has created a “teach to the test” culture, federal officials are permitting states to apply for waivers that allow them to set their own state standards for elements of the law, so long as they can show they will initiate reforms approved by the government, including linking test results to evaluations made by teachers. The article reports that currently around half of the country’s schools are not yet meeting NCLB targets for reading proficiency and graduation. Meanwhile, changes to NCLB that could result from a further reauthorization of the Act are blocked in Congress. It is for that reason that President Obama has agreed to these waivers, which vary in detail from state to state. In Michigan for example, Martin reports that the NCLB target date of 2014 for every student to pass the tests no longer applies. Instead, the Department of Education in Michigan will set its own date.
Racial inequality in U.S. education policies going right back to the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896 was the principal causal problem that in due course led to U.S. government policy resulting in the No Child Left Behind Act. The Act was placed on the policy agenda following introduction by Representative John Boehner in March 2001 and eventually signed into law by President George W Busch on January 8, 2002.