The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) became federal law on January 8, 2002 with the support of nearly 90% of both houses of Congress. It was a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which was itself “the most expansive federal education bill ever passed to date” (Answers.com, 2010, para. 1). NCLB exceeds 1,200 pages and $22.5 billion dollars in authorized spending, representing one of the largest increases in federal involvement in education in history. It has profound implications for teachers and teaching in the United States.
NCLB starts with the simple premise that every American child has the ability to read and do math at grade level. If that is true, goes the logic, this can be achieved by law with sufficient resources and accountability. Hilary Clinton described NCLB as:
…a historic promise between the federal government and educators — schools would be held to higher standards than ever before and the government would make a record investment in those schools to ensure that they would be able to meet the new expectations confronting them (ABC News, 2008, para. 11).
The actual structure of the bill retains that basic logic but with more complexity. According to the U.S. Department of Education (2004), NCLB has four major “pillars”: “stronger accountability for results”, “more freedom for states and communities”, “proven education methods”, and “more choices for parents.” There are significant implications for schools and teachers in all four “pillars” but dwarfing the later three is the first pillar: accountability.
Each state was already required to set standards for Math and Reading in the previous reauthorization of ESEA (the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994). NCLB additionally requires states to assess all public school students against those standards (but leaves the choice of standards and tests to the states). NCLB mandates testing each year for grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. NCLB requires the testing of all students in the subject grades: “Schools must test at least 95 percent of the various subgroups of children, including their students with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency” (U.S. Department of Education, 2003, p. 12). In doing so, states must make “reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities or limited English proficiency” (U.S. Department of Education, p. 12). The law requires that each state make the test results available publicly (U.S. Department of Education, 2004, para. 1).
Each state is required to ensure that “all students are proficient in reading and mathematics by 2013-2014” (Kansas State Department of Education, n.d., para. 1). Each state is further required to set annual proficiency goals in math and reading for each year leading to 2014. These proficiency goals must reflect the state’s expectation of “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) toward the 2014 goal of 100% proficiency. NCLB requires the states to monitor and achieve AYP not just in the student population in general but also in specific sub-groups defined by “race, ethnicity, English language proficiency, disability, and socio-economic status” (U.S. Department of Education, 2007, p. 6).
There are significant consequences to failing to meet AYP. The U.S. Department of Education (2004, para. 2) explains the consequences:
Schools that do not make progress must provide supplemental services, such as free tutoring or after-school assistance; take corrective actions; and, if still not making adequate yearly progress after five years, make dramatic changes to the way the school is run.
The first consequences can occur after a Title I school fails to make AYP in any sub-group or subject two years in a row. Consequences increase in severity over time.
- Failure to meet AYP for two consecutive years: students must be offered a choice of transferring to other public schools.
- Failure to meet AYP for three consecutive years: students must be offered the above and supplemental educational services, including private tutoring.
- Failure to meet AYP for four consecutive years: students must be offered the above and the school must undergo outside corrective actions, which may include replacing staff or implementing a new curriculum.
- Failure to meet AYP for five consecutive years: students must be offered the above and the school must plan its restructuring, including possible governance changes.
- Failure to meet AYP for six or more consecutive years: students must be offered the above and the school must implement its restructuring plan (greatschools, n.d., para. 2)
Restructuring after five years of failing to make AYP includes one of five options “reopen the school as a public charter school; replace all or most of the school staff, including the principal; enter into a contract with an entity …; state takeover; and/or any other major restructuring of the school’s governance arrangement” (greatschools, n.d., para. 9).
In return for becoming subject to the stringent requirements, states become eligible for very large and somewhat flexible financial benefits.
It is possible for most school districts to transfer up to 50 percent of the federal formula grant funds they receive under the Improving Teacher Quality State Grants, Educational Technology, Innovative Programs, and Safe and Drug-Free Schools programs to any one of these programs, or to their Title I program, without separate approval (U.S. Department of Education, 2004, para. 3).
Each of these programs, and the many other programs funded under NCLB, represents a particular and significant legislative intention beyond the scope of this paper.
There have been a number of legal challenges to NCLB in the eight years since its enactment, but it has generally triumphed in those challenges. The most significant of these is the several challenges arguing that NCLB creates unfunded mandates. In School Dist. of City of Pontiac v. Secretary of the United States Dep’t of Educ., nine school districts in three states, 10 education associations and the National Education Association sued in Michigan claiming NCLB violated one of its own provisions (20 U.S.C. § 7907(a)). Both the original court and the appellate 6th Circuit Court (in a split 8-8 decision) found that the plaintiffs were required to comply with NCLB (FindLaw, 2009). Likewise, the State of Connecticut’s suit in federal district court over its own version of the unfunded mandate issue was dismissed as well (National School Boards Association, 2006).
There have been a number of other legal challenges of more minor nature. These include a challenge to California’s English-only testing policy (Coachella Valley Unified Sch. Dist. v. State), a challenge to the “highly qualified teachers” provisions (Renee v. Duncan) and an argument that private individuals had “an enforceable right of action under the No Child Left Behind Act’s (NCLB) notification and supplemental education services (SES) provisions” (National School Boards Association, 2008, para. 1) among others. In these and the vast majority of other cases, the courts ruled in favor of NCLB.
NCLB is a huge change in the landscape of teaching in the United States. Contained in its 1200+ pages are interventions in the way reading is taught, new requirements for teacher qualifications, powerful school choice provisions, school safety provisions, interventions intended to prevent dropping out, adult literacy programs, a number of programs to assist English Language Learners, and much more. However, dwarfing all these is NCLB’s requirement that all students will achieve proficiency in math and reading by 2014. The demands of making AYP and the consequences of failure are and will remain the dominant challenge in education today.
ABC News. (2008). Bill Clinton blames Kennedy for No Child Left Behind flaws. Retrieved January 29, 2010, from http://blogs.abcnews.com/politicalradar/2008/02/bill-clinton-bl.html
Answers.com. (2010). Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Retrieved January 29, 2010, from http://www.answers.com/topic/elementary-and-secondary-education-act
California Department of Education. (2003). California State Assembly Committee on Education. Retrieved January 29, 2010, from http://www.education.ca.gov/nr/sp/yr03/yr03sp0820.asp?print=yes
FindLaw. (2009). School district of the city of Pontiac, et al v. Secretary of the United States Department of Education. Retrieved January 29, 2010, from http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data2/circs/6th/052708pv1.pdf
Kansas State Department of Education. (n.d.). No Child Left Behind: Measuring adequate yearly progress. Retrieved January 29, 2010, from http://www.ksde.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=ASENXc71pkc%3D&tabid=2333&mid=6539
National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education. (n.d.). NCLB action briefs: Adequate yearly progress. Retrieved January 29, 2010, from http://www.ncpie.org/nclbaction/ayp.html
National School Boards Association. (2006). Connecticut, et al v. Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Education. Retrieved January 29, 2010, from http://www.nsba.org/cosa2/clips/docs/CT_NCLB_decision.pdf
National School Boards Association. (2008). Newark Parents Ass’n v. Newark Pub. Sch., No. 07-4002 (3d Cir. Nov. 20, 2008). Retrieved January 29, 2010, from http://www.nsba.org/MainMenu/SchoolLaw/Issues/NCLB/RecentCases/Newark-Parents-Assn.aspx
U.S. Department of Education. (2003). No Child Left Behind: A parents guide. Retrieved January 29, 2010, from http://www2.ed.gov/parents/academic/involve/nclbguide/parentsguide.pdf
U.S. Department of Education. (2004). Four pillars of NCLB. Retrieved January 28, 2010, from http://www2.ed.gov/nclb/overview/intro/4pillars.html
U.S. Department of Education. (2007). Building on results: A blueprint for strengthening the No Child Left Behind act. Retrieved January 29, 2010, from http://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/nclb/buildingonresults.pdf
U.S. Government Printing Office. (2002). Public Law 107 – 110 – an act to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind. Retrieved January 29, 2010, from http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-107publ110/content-detail.html
greatschools. (n.d.). No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Retrieved January 29, 2010, from http://www.greatschools.org/definitions/wa/nclb.html
 NCLB also contains a requirement for states to set standards in science by 2006.
 NCLB requires that “each state must produce and disseminate annual report cards that provide information on student achievement in the state” (U.S. Department of Education, 2003, p. 8).
 These goals are primarily expressed in terms of standardized test results (on a test of the state’s choosing), but also must include “graduation rates for public secondary school students and ‘at least one other academic indicator’ for public elementary school students” (National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education [NCPIE], n.d., para. 6).
 States are also requires by NCLB to participate in the federal government’s own standardized test of math and reading for 4th and 8th grade students (National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP) when it is given every two years.
 Title I schools are “schools where at least 40 percent of the children in the school attendance area are from low-income families or at least 40 percent of the student enrollment are from low-income families” (greatschools, n.d., p. 3).
 Intervention in non-Title I schools is at the discretion of the state under NCLB. In California “Non Title I schools will be publicly recognized as having not made their targets, but there will be no additional consequences” (California Department of Education, 2003, para. 11).