On January 5, 2001, President George W. Bush signed into legislation the No Child Left Behind Act. The goal of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was to improve the performance of U.S. schools and required every state to test every student every year from third through eighth grade in both reading and math. The federal government would hold schools accountable for the progress and success of their students while allowing the states to set their own academic standards and choose their own tests (PBS, 2001a). Prior to NCLB, only 15 states performed student testing for these grades (Symonds, 2001).
The bill stated that the government would increase funding for poor school districts and focused on attaining better achievement from poor and minority students (PBS, 2001b). If in three years a school did not show improvement in its test scores, its students could receive federal funds to attend a better public or private school (Symonds, 2001) and in the fourth and fifth years of poor improvement, the school would need to make corrective actions to improve the school and ultimately may need to restructure the school (USDE, 2003). In addition, the lofty goal of ALL students being proficient and passing the state tests by 2014 was stated in the act (Antle, 2005).
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The schools receive annual "report cards" which show the test results and show how the states are progressing. The results must be broken down by demographics - poverty, race, ethnicity, disability and limited English proficiency - to prevent schools from lumping all of the scores together in an average and disguising the achievement gaps between the different groups (PBS, 2001b). Historically, students did not break down their testing results and the scores were incredibly misleading and did not correctly designate the students who still needed assistance.
NCLB was a bi-partisan bill introduced by President Bush and steered though the Senate by the late Senator Ted Kennedy. The bill appealed to both sides of the political world, as the Democrats wished for increased spending and focus on minority students and the Republicans hoped for school choice options and tough standards.
Prevalence and Seriousness
Prior to NCLB, there was no mandatory testing in all states - no method to see how schools, states and student groups stacked up against one another. The achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students continued to widen, with poor students all but forgotten. NCLB ultimately set a bar for where students need to be. The government put money behind the legislation and attempted to give the states and ultimately the schools the tools they need to get all students to an acceptable level.
Schools and educators that fail to give students the tools to learn year after year need to be replaced. A child does not have a choice what neighborhood he lives in and thus what public school he attends. All children must be presented with equal opportunities in order to give them the chance to succeed (PBS, 2002a).
Impact on Families
Poor families often get stuck with poor schools - both financially and educationally. A child from a poor family should be given the same educational opportunities and have the same educational expectations placed on him/her. NCLB would attempt to offer all students - with no regard to their or their neighborhood's financial situation.
One important section of NCLB deals with the necessity of parental involvement. It states that in order to receive funds to help the academic achievement of the disadvantaged students, the schools must have a written policy that implements programs, activities and procedures for the involvement of parents. This policy would be distributed to all of the parents and involve them in the development of the programs and activities. Special attention would be paid to economically disadvantaged, disabled, poor English speaking and racial and ethnic minority parents to enable their participation (USDE, 2003).
Pros and Cons of No Child Left Behind
The late Ted Kennedy, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, was instrumental in garnering support and collaborating with both political parties in order to push through No Child Left Behind. Even after the law was sharply criticized, he remained firm in the belief that all children have the ability to learn and that we should hold the schools accountable in seeing that they can and do learn (McKenzie, 2009).
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The Bush administration including his Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and the Department of Education firmly believed in No Child Left Behind. Even after the National Education Association and two states filed lawsuits against NCLB, they staunchly defended the act and their policies.
The California Teachers Association (CTA) which boasts 325,000 members is critical of not only NCLB, but the Obama administration's attempts to revise the flawed plan. The CTA describes NCLB as one-size-fits-all and that it unfairly uses test scores to label schools and students as failing without offering any solution to help schools improve. They feel that the focus should be to create quality neighborhood schools for all students, and not creating a competition system that creates winner and loser schools. The CTA feels that by continuing the current NCLB testing plans that the achievement gaps will increase and not decrease as is the law's intention (CTA, 2010).
FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing is outspoken concerning their disdain with the current structure of the NCLB testing structure. They have assembled over 150 organizations including the NAACP and the National Education Association in a joint statement which is critical regarding the fairness and effectiveness of NCLB. Their concerns include, over-emphasizing the standardized testing with a strict curriculum focused on test preparation rather than true academics, using sanctions that do not help improve schools, inadequate funding and exclusion of low-scoring children in order to help test results. FairTest believes that NCLB should focus on systemic changes, as opposed to application of sanctions (FairTest, 2004).
The National Education Association (NEA) has been an outspoken critic of the NCLB law since its inception. As the largest organization of education professionals, the NEA believes they are the voice of the public educator and have the resources and members "in the field" to fuel their opposition. The NEA does not believe that standardized testing and strict guidelines are our country's answer to a great public education. They stress the importance of helping hard-to-staff schools, especially those with a high concentration of disadvantaged students, with additional funding to attract and keep quality teachers. They feel the government should focus on early childhood education as well as parental involvement and healthcare for all, instead of pushing education reform that focuses on test passing. The NEA wants the federal government to require states to offer an equal education to all - with funding targeted to schools with the greatest poverty (NEA, 2010a).
The amount of opposition to NCLB is astounding. An effort to find additional support was unsuccessful. With over 3.2 million members, the NEA has a tremendous impact on education in America. Their legislative power and focus will undoubtedly steer the new administrations version of NCLB toward a more teacher-friendly position. They have a very convincing argument. Testing students strictly just to test them doesn't offer a solution to the bigger problem - the inequality of teachers and schools throughout the country (NEA, 2010b).
With his 2010 State of the Union address President Barack Obama introduced his thoughts concerning the reauthorization of NCLB. He stressed the need to update and amend the law with increased funding (upwards of $4 billion) while focusing on rewarding success instead of failure and investing in reform that raises student achievement. His focus on an equal education for all was clear in his statement, "And in this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential" (USDE, 2010).
One criticism n about NCLB was that teachers and school administrators were not consulted or considered when developing the law - especially the testing portion. The new administration is consulting teachers with Teaching Ambassador Fellows and listening to their ideas for a new NCLB (USDE, 2010).
By placing the testing onus on the states with no directive for achievement, the government essentially introduced 50 separate testing programs - to all be developed and administered by their respective states. The required skills and knowledge for each test should be the same nationwide. If the goal is for all students to be college-bound, all students should have the same college-bound requirements - similar to an SAT or ACT test.
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Recruiting and retaining great teachers in low-income schools should be and is a primary focus of the new NCLB. All teachers should be rewarded both with recognition and financially for their students' achievement. By offering a greater salary and clear bonus structure poor schools can become a magnet for teachers who have a true desire to teach and to have their students succeed.
As our minority populations become majority populations over the next 20 years, our schools will need to make an effort to keep a balanced playing field for all students. Equal learning opportunities and facilities will need to be offered in order to give every child the opportunities the government should provide for them. The government needs to look at schools and school districts that have overcome their neighborhood or financial status to become educational gems. Use these schools and their successes as examples of how to overcome adversity.
A single test or list of tested items must be developed. While NCLB leaves the testing up to the states, I believe that eventually there will be a clear directive for what should be tested and this will ensure that all students are receiving the same treatment.
Training, hiring and retaining excellent teachers will remain as the most difficult aspect of disadvantaged schools. In order for a teacher to choose to teach at a school with a poor or less supportive student body, there will need to be incentives for the teachers. While there are some teachers who thrive in a challenging atmosphere, there are many more who would prefer a financially solid school with plentiful supplies and eager parent involvement.