The Perceived Failure of No Child Left Behind and Misplaced Accountability


I’m currently teaching an Education Policy course and this week the students are individually charged with finding readings and leading a 3 hour class session on a particular educational policy. Today we learned about No Child Left Behind (NCLB). This is perhaps one of the most influential education policies (joining the ranks of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965—it is actually a reauthorization of this act) because NCLB marked a pivotal shift in the federal government’s role in U.S. public schools. Indeed, some scholars use NCLB as the indicator of a shift from categorical federalism to performance-based federalism.

The student leader began class with identifying the overall themes of NCLB and asked us to identify the positive effects it has had on public schools. I enjoyed this start to the conversation because given that we’ve failed to meet the January 2014 goal of 100% proficiency, NCLB is largely touted as a failed piece of legislation. But I disagree (to the surprise of some). The policy itself was not flawed. Nor was the thinking behind the policy. What failed was the implementation of the policy. What caused the failure was the lack of infrastructure to support its implementation. Who failed at providing that infrastructure were State Education Agencies (SEAs)—those constitutionally charged with managing our nation’s schools.

For those of you who’ve bought into the now common rhetoric of “NCLB is to blame for school failure”, I challenge you to compare NAEP data pre and post NCLB within an historical and economic lens and see if you can still ‘blame’ one piece of policy for the nation’s slipping global standing. I am not arguing as Diane Ravitch is prone to do that our nation’s schools are not failing. They are. We are. But I do not blame NCLB; I blame the systemic flaws across our social institutions for inciting and perpetuating inequities in education.

To make clear how I think NCLB affected school functioning and the more general conversation about education in the U.S., I provide some bullet points:

The good:

  • Set a precedent for bipartisan policy making
  • Secondary teachers must have a Bachelor’s degree in their content area
  • Data-driven instructional practices are now the norm
  • Increased awareness of the achievement gap between more than black and white students
  • Led to the creation of the Common Core State Standards through its emphasis on literacy, math, and science
  • Streamlined Title I categories so funding was more efficient
  • Partnerships between community organizations and public schools is more common
  • Forced districts to outsource some services (e.g., uniforms, food, transportation) into the private sector thus increasing the quality and economic efficiency of those services (i.e., the competition embedded in the private market yielded higher quality and lower costs—for broad scale support services, not academic services)

The almost good/not quite bad:

  • Increased services to ELL students

o   But we still don’t know the best way to get ELL students English proficient nor academic proficient. This just urged us to start strategic research.

  • Removed the mandate of neighborhood schools by allowing parents to switch schools if their school was labeled low performing for 2 consecutive years (a microcosm of school choice)

o   The parents of students who attend low performing schools are most often of color or low income. These parents are most likely to be least knowledgeable about such policies and if they are aware, they are least likely to have the life context that affords them the ability to capitalize on this ‘choice’. How do they get their child to said chosen school if there is no bus? How do they even know if their school is low performing? What are the other school options?

  • Recognized the importance of integrating technology into pedagogy

o   But we have teachers who have no pedagogical training so they do not know how to effectively use technology as more than a ‘fun’ activity

  • Created more school options for parents through charters and magnets

o   Similar to school choice, options are only options to the extent you can access them.

o   Charter schools are heavily critiqued for not being sustainable and for the difficulty in scaling up. This means that either students attend that special school until it closes in 2-3 years or only a select group of students via a lottery system can take advantage of this special school

  • Raised teacher/admin accountability

o   Phew! The wrong people are held accountable for the wrong things at the wrong time through the wrong mechanisms. (teachers/student scores/once a year/tests)

The ugly:

  • NCLB, instead of motivating success, has cultivated a fear of failure for teachers and students, resulting in decreased morale for education
  • The punitive measures outlined in NCLB (called ‘sanctions’) were far too public, thus forcing states to lower expectations for teacher quality and academic achievement to avoid being publicly shamed as ‘low performing’
  • Allowed SEAs to place responsibility for student achievement at the local level, almost solely on teachers when in fact, data suggests teachers are one of a dozen variables influential in student achievement

We ended the lesson with a brief exercise in which we stated if NCLB should be reauthorized again (President Obama reauthorized it in 2008—a year later than its intended reauthorization date). We all agreed that reauthorization should happen only if states are held accountable for creating the necessary infrastructure in which NCLB can be successful (e.g., raising teacher licensure requirements/getting rid of alternative licensure programs; providing equitable school funding; providing relevant and rigorous professional development opportunities; assessing teacher quality consistently and through multiple mechanisms; setting realistic academic goals with appropriate supports for schools; enforcing policies and enacting appropriate sanctions behind closed doors; etc).

But this is a pipe dream because the federal government has no ‘right’ to intervene in public schools and does not therefore have the authority to punish SEAs for noncompliance. For those of you calling for education reform, I urge you to make that call to the appropriate office—your state department of education.

This entry was posted in Policy.