No Child Left Behind Act

Last Updated: 27 Jul 2020
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With the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in early 2002, the Bush Administration put its stamp on the central federal law governing K-12 schooling, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) ratified in 1965. Throughout his campaign for the presidency, Bush summoned the ideas that are now law as a way to improve public education across the board, particularly for poor children. Vowing to end the soft prejudice of low expectations that he said has allowed too many poor children to fall enduringly behind in school, President Bush declared, “It's time to come together to get it (educational reform) done so that we can truthfully say in America, 'No child will be left behind, not one single child'”

Described in this way, the problem of low expectations proposes the solution most probably built into the provisions of No Child Left Behind: higher expectations. Though, the law needs not higher expectations which, after all, cannot be legislated but to a certain extent documented success, across the board and against a set of external standards. Expecting every child to succeed is one thing; needing that success is another.

Supporters look upon the No Child Left Behind Act as a much-needed push in the right direction: a set of measures that will drive broad gains in student achievement as well as hold states and schools properly accountable for student progress. A number of critics see it fundamentally as a insincere set of demands, framed in an appealing language of expectations, that will force schools to fail on a scale large enough to rationalize shifting public dollars to private schools that is, as a political effort to reform public education out of existence through a policy of test and burn. (Levin, B. & Riffel, J, 1998).

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Sadly, No Child Left Behind appears, at best, to fix the wrong problem. The sanctions written into the law appear designed to compel teachers to teach and students to learn. Thus far, few children do not want to learn and few teachers do not want to teach. This is barely the biggest problem in struggling schools. What is missing is chance and support, not desire. Consider the gap between the reforms institutionalized through No Child Left Behind and the needs of John Essex, a high-poverty school in rural Demopolis, Alabama. The New York Times (Schemo, 2003b), reported:

The truck full of stones showed up at John Essex School without explanation, as if some unnamed saint had heard Loretta McCoy's despair. As principal of this school in Alabama's rural Black Belt, Ms. McCoy struggles to find money for essentials: library books, musical instruments, supplies and teachers. So when the stones appeared, Ms. McCoy knew it might be the closest John Essex would get to landscaping and got pushing.

A pile went by the back door, filing a huge pothole the children waded through when it rained. Another truckload filled a sinkhole by the Dumpsters, where garbage trucks got stuck in mud, and a third went to craters when the children took recess. Her pleading got John Essex five deliveries of rock: not enough to level the school's entrance, but enough to give its principal a small dose of hope.

The K-12 school has 264 students, all poor and all Black. The building's cinder-block walls are unplastered, electrical lines are exposed, also the library includes books “that ponder how the Vietnam War will turn out” and “speak of landing on the moon as an ambitious dream” (Schemo, 2003b). Students have to master a foreign language to earn the academic diploma they require to get into college; however the school has no foreign language teacher, as well no art or music teacher. A few wrist bells comprise the school's collection of musical instruments. One person teaches chemistry, earth science, biology, and all the other science classes.

Given the funding shortfalls and high failure rates extensively predicted for struggling schools like John Essex, it is hard to believe that sanctions are a good-faith prescription for accomplishment. Schools with fewer students and less funding will have even more difficulty attracting the best teachers, most of whom will prefer not to teach in a school branded failing.

Though No Child Left Behind was signed into law with promises of not giving up on a single student, which proposes a commitment to ensuring that all children succeed, sanctions drive the law and almost make sure the opposite: failure. If this was not the case, if a state documented the success of each and every student that state no doubt would be criticized for cheating, grade inflation, or low standard.

Pious platitudes regarding children being capable to learn and accountability for adequate yearly progress are poor substitutes for the cold, hard cash schools like John Essex need to attract good teachers and to finance the programs that might validate this rhetoric.

While the federal contribution to total spending on public education is extremely small, about seven percent, the high-poverty schools most vulnerable to the sanctions rely excessively on this money. No Child Left Behind emerges not to address the very real problems in these schools, some of which rely on Title I dollars for more than a third of their spending, but somewhat to use those problems as a rationale for eroding public education.

President Bush wanted to include vouchers for private schools in the No Child Left Behind law, however let this go when it became clear Congress would not pass the legislation with that provision. Debatably, however, No Child Left Behind lays the groundwork for exactly this result. The objective appears to be not to improve the quality of schooling for poor children, however rather to turn the problems of poor schools into a campaign to destroy public education. As growingly schools are deemed failing, the demand for vouchers likely will increase, paving the way for a transfer of students and funds to private schools.

In the summer of 2003, the president invigorated his call for vouchers and backed a proposal to spend seventy-five million dollars in federal money on vouchers for private schools. Of the seventy-five million dollars, fifteen million dollars would go to families in Washington, DC for vouchers for two thousand of the sixty-seven thousand students in the district. The move came after a decision by the U. S. Supreme Court the year before that affirmed the constitutionality of permitting parents to use public funds to pay for religious and other private schooling. The case focused on a program in Cleveland, which offers private-school vouchers of up to $2,250 to approximately three thousand and seven hundred of the district's seventy-five thousand students. (Tozer, S. E., Violas, P. C., & Senese, G, 2002).

Several students lack supports common in middle-class and rich households an adult at home in the evening, lots of books, and a quiet place to work. Others struggle to handle with the stress of living with constant economic insecurity evictions, homelessness, moving from place to place or of living in a community used by the larger society as a poisonous dumping ground.

By paying no attention to this reality, No Child Left Behind continues the “blame-the-victim approach” that has long considered public schooling. Much more is needed than simply stating we now have high expectations for all children. Unaccompanied by a political commitment to construct a system where there is a cause to expect every child to succeed, such proclamations ridicule the ideals they bring to mind.

Under the semblance of battling the soft bigotry of low expectations, policy-makers are moving in the incorrect direction in the long struggle to understand the ideal of equal educational opportunity. The stick side of the No Child Left Behind Act is operating: Schools not capable to meet annual achievement targets are being punished. Though, the carrot side of the law, something better for poor children in struggling schools, has not materialized. While funding for Title I has increased, it falls violently short of the realistic costs of achieving hundred percent proficiency.

As the federal government reviewed states' plans for putting into practice No Child Left Behind in summer 2003, a related battle gathered steam when the Bush administration planned to overhaul Head Start, the federally funded preschool program that serves about one million of the nation's poorest 3- and 4-year-olds in community centers and schools. Under the proposal, the funding for the program would be distributed in block grants to states, under the control at first of up to eight governors. When Head Start was formed in 1965 as an initiative within the larger War on Poverty, then-President Lyndon Johnson intentionally avoided giving governors, antagonists in battles over civil rights, control over the program. (Levin, B. & Riffel, J, 1998).

Critics of the proposal, including more than forty antipoverty and child welfare groups, protested that distributing Head Start dollars in block grants to states would take to bits the program by destroying the federal guarantee that the money will be used as originally planned namely, to provide an array of services to poor children, together with nutritional food, dental and health care, immunizations, as well as, in some centers, literacy programs for family members.

To take this program away from communities this is a direct federal community program also hand it over to states without the national performance standards, without the requirements for complete services that make Head Start successful, and at a time when states are facing the biggest budget shortfalls in their history, is to destroy it. (Johnson, M, 2001).

Under the proposal, Head Start employees would be needed to teach reading, writing, and math skills, and Head Start pupils would be required to partake in an assessment to find out if the new academic standards were being met. The proposal would need as a minimum half of all Head Start teachers to have 4-year college degrees by 2008, however would not require competitive salaries. Head Start teachers now earn merely about half the average salary of kindergarten teachers.


Johnson, M. (2001, December). Making teaching boom proof: The future of the teaching profession. New Economy, 8(4), 203-207.

This article describes how the staffing and retention of teachers could be enhanced to deal with national shortages.

Levin, B. & Riffel, J. (1998, March). Conceptualising school change. Cambridge Journal of Education, 28(1), 113.

This article attempts to discuss the implications for educational strategy makers suggested by the literature review

Schemo, D. J. (2003b, July 11). Questions on data cloud luster of Houston schools. The New York Times. Retrieved from

This article discusses that hundreds of drop-outs were wrongly listed as transfers. Enrolment at alleged miracle high schools dropped noticeably during this time.

Tozer, S. E., Violas, P. C., & Senese, G. (2002). School and society: Historical and contemporary perspectives (4th Ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill

This text seeks to define an analytic framework that illustrates how and why certain school-society issues first took place in this country and how they transformed over time. In its assessment of the development of education in the United States, this text entails an engaging historical story.

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No Child Left Behind Act. (2017, May 19). Retrieved from

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