History of No Child Left Behind

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

The No Child Left Behind Act was the signature education policy of President George W. Bush and created sweeping changes in American education. However, it proved controversial from the beginning, as you'll find out in this lesson.

A Sweeping Change

When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, education was one of his signature issues. He wanted to create sweeping changes that would hold schools and teachers more accountable, raise standards, and in particular, benefit the poor and minority students who, data showed, consistently lagged behind their peers.

Bush's education agenda became known as No Child Left Behind, and one of his first acts as president was to officially propose it to Congress on January 23, 2001, three days after taking office. The No Child Left Behind Act was passed just months later and would dictate American education policy for the next 14 years.

However, from the very beginning, the program faced criticism from many teachers and education experts who argued it did not work and, even worse, actually harmed disadvantaged students, whom it was specifically designed to help. Though there was some data that the program had a positive impact, it became increasingly unpopular. Several attempts at changes were made before the program was formally discontinued in 2015.


To understand the history of No Child Left Behind, we have to back up and talk about something called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). First implemented in 1965 under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act gives hundreds of millions of dollars to individual states for K-12 education, which the states then distribute to local school districts.

Historically, education has been administered by states and local school districts, not the federal government. The ESEA was one of the first times the federal government took a large role in educational policy. And while it was still left to the states to set their own education policy, the federal government quickly found out it could shape policy by attaching certain requirements to the money distributed under ESEA. If states did not follow the requirements, they did not get the money.

From Johnson forward, presidents started using the annual reauthorizations of the ESEA to set their education agenda. They put provisions into the ESEA that states had to follow in order to receive their federal funding, which states and local school districts have come to rely on as part of their annual budgets.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), signed by President Bush on January 8, 2002, was one such reauthorization of the ESEA, but it introduced perhaps the most sweeping changes since the ESEA was first passed in 1965. In particular, it affected Title I of the ESEA, which allocated funding for school districts that served primarily poor and minority students.

Implementation and Controversy

After Bush signed the NCLB Act into law in January of 2002, states had to start changing their policies in order to continue receiving federal money. Disbursements included the all-important Title I funds, which in many cases were the primary source of funding for schools in poor areas.

Under NCLB, schools serving disadvantaged students had to hire 'highly qualified' teachers and start showing Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in student performance, though it was left to the states how to measure both of those terms. Under the original NCLB, all students in the country were supposed to be judged as 'proficient' in math and science by the 2013-2014 school year.

Early on, school districts and states complained that the AYP requirements were unrealistic and would have a negative impact on schools and students. In 2005, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced a plan to give states limited flexibility in meeting the AYP benchmarks if they could show progress. This was the first of many attempts to give states flexibility and move away from the strict goals of the original bill.

In 2007, a comprehensive update to NCLB that linked teacher pay to AYP failed to pass Congress after intense backlash from teachers' unions. It was the first sign of growing resistance to the bill by teachers and administrators.

NCLB in the Obama Era

When President Barack Obama succeeded Bush in 2009, he wanted to keep many of the key provisions in NCLB, while also responding to criticism by giving states greater flexibility. By the time Obama took office, it was becoming clear that most, if not all, states, would fail to meet the original NCLB goal, whereby all students would demonstrate 'proficiency' by the 2013-2014 school year. Obama would need to make some changes.

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