No Child Left Behind

The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum’s section on education is decorated with stock quotations about the moral imperative of education, an idea that certainly everyone agrees on. Bush’s signature education legislation, the No Child Left behind Act (NCLB), originally received support from both Republicans and Democrats, as well as from people on many sides of the education policy debate. But when judging NCLB on its own terms, the law fell mostly short of its stated goals.

While NCLB has resulted in states, school boards, parents and teachers having a dialogue about accountability and standards, the Bush library does not present an honest look back at the history of the bill, omitting shortcomings and criticisms – including those from former supporters.


Bush Library Emphasizes No Child Left Behind

The Bush Library Highlights The No Child Left Behind Act In Its “Creating Opportunity” Section. The following photographs are from the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum:

[George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum Display, photos taken May 3-4, 2013]

No Child Left Behind Failed Its Primary Goals

Ten Years After Enactment, Education Experts “Found No Net Positive Effect From Any Of No Child Left Behind’s Primary Goals.” According to the National Journal, “National Journal asked 21 education experts—the law’s authors, other lawmakers, school officials, academics, and advocates with a variety of perspectives—to evaluate No Child Left Behind’s effectiveness based on its original goals. […] Of the seven objectives that NJ identified, the experts considered the law’s spotlight on student achievement its only success. Collectively, they found no net positive effect from any of No Child Left Behind’s primary goals.” [National Journal, 12/8/11]

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Experts: No Child Left Behind “Did Not Achieve Its Defining Goal—Accountability.” According to the National Journal, “The law did not achieve its defining goal—accountability—but it spurred states and school boards to rethink how they assess and run their education systems. Some called this an achievement in itself.” [National Journal, 12/8/11]

Experts: No Child Left Behind “Failed To Close The Achievement Gap Between Well-Off White Children And Minority Or Low-Income Students.” According to the National Journal, “The law failed to close the achievement gap between well-off white children and minority or low-income students. But that goal was always more of an aspiration than a realistic objective.” [National Journal, 12/8/11]

Experts: “No Child Left Behind Was An Outright Failure At Ensuring Teacher Effectiveness.” According to the National Journal, “No Child Left Behind was an outright failure at ensuring teacher effectiveness. Its certification requirements were ineffective; but, at minimum, it focused educators on evaluating teachers.” [National Journal, 12/8/11]

Experts: No Child Left Behind “Did Not Dramatically Boost Students’ Scores.” According to the National Journal, “On perhaps its most basic goal, improving overall student performance, the law did not dramatically boost students’ scores, but neither did it inhibit their progress.” [National Journal, 12/8/11]

No Child Left Behind “Did Not Cause A Noticeable Uptick” In Reading And Math Scores. According to the National Journal, “The results from all of that testing are not very encouraging. In global comparisons, 15-year-olds in the United States rank 14th in reading and 25th in math. Scores have increased slowly and steadily over the past 20 years, but No Child Left Behind did not cause a noticeable uptick.” [National Journal, 12/8/11]

No Child Left Behind’s Many Problems Included “Tremendous” Paperwork Burdens, Useless Teacher Certification Requirements, And Issues With Fair Funding For Poorer Schools. According to the National Journal, “The law had problems from the beginning. Administrators spent much of their time trying to get their schools in compliance on paper rather than implementing the kind of radical changes the sponsors envisioned. The paperwork burdens were tremendous. The teacher-certification requirements were pretty much a waste of time. Loopholes in the funding provisions had the practical effect of ensuring that financially poor schools still got less money than those in well-off areas. Some states lowered their academic standards to ‘improve’ their performance.” [National Journal, 12/8/11]

NYT: “Almost Everybody Agrees That The Law Is Broken,” Prompting Obama Administration To Issue Waivers For No Child Left Behind Benchmarks. According to the New York Times, “Forty-eight percent, up from 39 percent in 2010, is the highest proportion of schools labeled as failing since President George W. Bush signed the education law in 2001. Schools acquire the label when they fail to raise student reading and math scores enough to keep up with testing targets set by their states. [Education Secretary Arne] Duncan, in a statement issued on Wednesday, brushed aside the discrepancy. ‘Whether it’s 50 percent, 80 percent or 100 percent of schools being incorrectly labeled as failing, one thing is clear: No Child Left Behind is broken,’ Mr. Duncan said. […] Almost everybody agrees that the law is broken. With Congress making little progress rewriting it, the administration announced this fall that it would issue waivers of its central requirements to states that outlined credible plans to hold schools accountable for student progress.” [New York Times, 12/15/11]

No Child Left Behind Critics Say Law Is Underfunded, Overly Complex, And Too Heavy On Standardized Tests. According to PBS, “Since its passage, NCLB has become what is arguably one of the most unpopular pieces of education legislation ever passed. A public opinion poll, conducted by Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa International (an education organization), found that nearly six out of 10 Americans who are familiar with NCLB believe it has had no effect on schools, or a negative effect. Criticism from lawmakers and educators is widespread, and sometimes fierce. Among the most commonly echoed charges: the legislation has been underfunded, it has focused too much on standardized testing, and its most admirable goals have been bogged down in complex details.” [PBS, 9/5/08]

In 2011, 50 Percent Of Schools Failed Annual Yearly Progress Goals. According to U.S. News & World Report, “The main controversy surrounding NCLB is the difficulty schools are having meeting ‘Annual Yearly Progress’ (AYP) math and reading benchmarks—goals that about 50 percent of American schools failed to achieve in 2011. By 2014, all students are expected to be ‘proficient’ in math and reading. But those proficiency benchmarks were left up to each individual state to decide in 2002, and schools are judged on the percentage of their students who meet those benchmarks, not their year-to-year improvement. That means more schools each year are considered to be ‘failing’ under the law. The 48 percent of schools who ‘failed’ under NCLB in 2011 represented more than double the percentage that failed in 2010.” [U.S. News & World Report, 1/4/12]

No Child Left Behind “Fumbled Its Measurement And Enforcement Mechanisms.” According to the National Journal, “No Child Left Behind got about halfway there in getting schools to account for the achievement, or failure, of their students. We know a lot more than we did 10 years ago about students’ math and reading abilities. […] But the law fumbled its measurement and enforcement mechanisms. It allowed states to create their own assessment tools, thus fragmenting the system and making it impossible to tell from state to state how students were performing. School administrators supplanted the initial goal of boosting student achievement with a more benign one—simple regulatory compliance. Achieving compliance became a paper game to jerry-rig the benchmarks so that more schools could meet them. Because low achievement led to sanctions, some school districts did everything they could to avoid letting the true story of their failures come out.” [National Journal, 12/8/11]

No Child Left Behind’s Efforts To Improve Teacher Quality Are Ineffective. According to the National Journal, “No Child Left Behind was intended to ensure high-quality teachers in every school, regardless of poverty level or neighborhood. It aimed to prevent school districts from concentrating low-performing teachers in poor areas where parents were less likely to complain. The law didn’t even get out of the starting gate in rectifying that situation. Faced with a torrent of protests from teachers unions and schools, the authors stopped short of mandating an ultimate ‘effectiveness’ goal and settled for requiring teacher certifications. To be considered ‘highly qualified’ under the law, teachers need two things—a bachelor’s degree in the subject they teach and a teaching credential. Teachers and school administrators describe the law’s certification requirements as ludicrous and time-consuming, causing bureaucratic headaches while doing nothing to indicate a teacher’s abilities. Teacher evaluations and professional-development efforts continue on an ad hoc basis depending on the state and the district, but they have little to do with the check-the-box credentialing.” [National Journal, 12/8/11]

No Child Left Behind “Has Succeeded In Exposing Problems In Public Schools but Has Done Little To Solve Them.” The following graphic is from the National Journal:

nclb nj

[National Journal, 12/8/11]

No Child Left Behind Damaged Public Education

Former No Child Left Behind Supporter Ravitch: Policies Are “Ruining American Education.” From the transcript of an interview with Diane Ravitch on National Public Radio:

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST: Diane Ravitch is the former assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush. During her time in that administration and afterwards, she advocated standardized testing and expanding school choice through charter schools. Those would later become key elements of No Child Left Behind under President George W. Bush, but she eventually became a critic of these approaches. […] Was there some specific piece of data or something that convinced you that these ideas were flawed?

DIANE RAVITCH: When I believed that they would work, they hadn’t been tried. Once they were tried, I was convinced that they didn’t work and, in fact, not only were they failing, but they’re ruining American education and they’re actually leading the way today towards privatization of public education, which I think would be a disaster. [NPR, 10/10/12]

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No Child Left Behind Encouraged Poorer Schools To Lower Standards And Took Away Incentives To Teach Curricula Beyond Reading And Math. According to the National Journal, “Critics say that the real damage from No Child Left Behind comes from curricula too focused on reading and math, coupled with standardized tests that don’t measure comprehension. Under the law, testing became its own game, which further narrowed the focus within math and reading instruction. Not surprisingly, this trend occurred most frequently in the poorest schools that were most in danger of sanctions under the law. Allowing the states to implement No Child Left Behind, a major concession by its congressional authors, has been detrimental to student achievement in some places, because states have lowered their standards so that fewer schools will be labeled as failing. […] State implementation also hurt some students because they suddenly had to do less to be considered proficient.” [National Journal, 12/8/11]

Ravitch: “Testing Should Be Used Diagnostically” But “It’s Being Used To Punish Teachers.” According to Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush, speaking on NPR, “Testing does not close achievement gaps. Testing just shows that there are gaps, but then you have to do something about it. Testing should be used diagnostically. It should not be used the way we’re using it today. It’s being used to punish teachers, to close schools and to do all sorts of high stake things like merit pay and basing teachers’ evaluation on testing, and that’s wrong. The cause of the achievement gap is poverty and segregation, and an absence of resources. Wherever you find that toxic combination of high poverty and racial segregation, you will find low test scores. And so what’s happening today is that we – first, we have No Child Left Behind, which I believe is a failed policy.” [NPR, 10/10/12]

No Child Left Behind Did Little to Close the Achievement Gap

Nationwide Assessment Shows Racial Score Gaps Narrowed In ‘70s and ‘80s, But Haven’t Changed Much Since 1998. According to the National Education Association, “If you didn’t know about NCLB, you would never guess that something bold and drastic was taking place right now in our schools. Reading scores are fairly level. The achievement gap has shrunk a little… Math scores are trending upward (as they did during the 70s) but they’re not rising faster than they were before NCLB, and math achievement gaps show little progress. This is not what success looks like. The bottom line: this strategy doesn’t work.” NEA included the following charts:


[National Education Association, January 2009]

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The Bush Library Touts Gains Minority Students Made During Bush’s Tenure. The following photograph is from the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum:


[George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum Display, photo taken May 3-4, 2013]

A Decade After No Child Left Behind, “Too Many Are Still Being Left Behind.” According to the Modesto Bee, “The No Child Left Behind Act rode in on a white horse, with the pledge of success for every student. Tying goals to federal funding for poor students put teeth behind that dreamy smile. After a decade dedicated to helping struggling students, however, in-depth reading tests show no real change. Differences in achievement between ethnic groups have budged only slightly — too many are still being left behind.” [Modesto Bee, 1/12/12]

Rising Test Scores Do Not Necessarily Reflect Increased Learning. According to David Berliner, an Arizona State University researcher and educational psychologist, in the Washington Post, “A rise in test scores leads most people to believe good things are happening in their schools. Not unreasonably, politicians and parents alike infer that students have learned more when test scores go up. But since the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law was passed that inference may be unwarranted. Sadly, there are numerous reasons why rising test scores may not be related to increases in student learning. 1). Virtually all states have changed the passing score on tests so that more children are classified proficient. […] 2). School districts across the nation engage in excessive, perhaps unethical, and, in some cases, illegal test preparation. This results in higher test scores, but not necessarily greater learning. […] 3) Familiarity with the objectives and the items on a test invariably results in increased test scores. […] 4) The test items we use do not tap the knowledge we really want to assess. […] 5) Afraid they could be fired or their schools closed because of NCLB test scores, district and school administrators invent ways to prevent the poorest performing students from taking tests. […] 6) It is common for scores to go up because of cheating.” [David Berliner,The Washington Post, 10/1/09]

Between 2004 And 2008, Gap Between Scores Of Minority Students And White Students Did Not Significantly Narrow. According to the New York Times, “The achievement gap between white and minority students has not narrowed in recent years, despite the focus of the No Child Left Behind law on improving the scores of blacks and Hispanics, according to results of a federal test considered to be the nation’s best measure of long-term trends in math and reading proficiency. Between 2004 and last year, scores for young minority students increased, but so did those of white students, leaving the achievement gap stubbornly wide, despite President George W. Bush’s frequent assertions that the No Child law was having a dramatic effect.” [New York Times, 4/28/09]