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No Child Left Behind: Facts, Results & Effects

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The No Child Left Behind program was one of the most controversial reforms in modern history. In this lesson, we'll talk about this program and see how it impacted American education.

No Child Left Behind

Education is important. If you're reading this, then there's probably a good chance you understand that. But, how do we handle education? That question is trickier, and not agreed upon by everyone. In the United States, we've tried a variety of methods. Some worked well, others were a bit more controversial. That's where we find the No Child Left Behind program (NCLB), a 2002 initiative to increase the quality of American education through increased federal presence in state schools. NCLB introduced major reforms, but did they work? Let's talk about it; after all, education is an important issue.

A NCLB banner for top-acheiving schools


Way back in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson was undertaking a series of reforms aimed at improving American lives called the Great Society program. One focus of this was education, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was created to give the federal government a firm role in American education. One of the most significant parts of this was the very first section, called Title I, which provided federal money to help pay for the education of disadvantaged students. The goal was to ensure that lower income neighborhoods did not receive sub-quality education.

Fast forward to 2002. President George W. Bush, operating in a climate of sharp party division, managed to gain support for a massive update to ESEA called the No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB had rare bi-partisan support, and came out of national concerns that American children were not being educated at an internationally-competitive level. There were particular concerns in 2002 about places like China graduating students with a higher level of education than American children, particularly in math and science. When NCLB was signed into law, it was celebrated as a national triumph.

Bush signing the No Child Left Behind Act

What NCLB Does

The No Child Left Behind Act implemented new educational goals for American society, and placed a great deal of accountability on individual schools to see that these goals were met. While schools were not legally mandated to comply with the changes, any school that didn't would lose its Title I funding.

What NCLB asked was that schools bring their students up to proficient levels of education by the 2013-2014 school year, and that they demonstrated this to the government. It was up to each individual state to define proficiency, but strong pressure was placed upon implementing a system of standardized tests.

According to the law, school progress would be measured through a series of target goals identified as Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP. If all students' tests did not match these goals for 2 years, that school was deemed inadequate, and could face several sanctions. These ranged from being required to offer free tutoring to being shut down entirely.


So, how'd No Child Left Behind turn out? When the law lapsed in 2015, no state had achieved 100% proficiency according to the standards set by the original act, and that revealed many concerns. NCLB was criticized heavily in between 2002 and 2015 for relying too heavily on standardized testing, as well as overemphasizing math and science, all of which skewed national curriculums away. The program was also severely underfunded, with Title I funding only reaching $14.5 billion of the $25 billion promised in the original act.

One of the biggest complaints among educators was that NCLB was applied uniformly across the states, with no distinction made between the populations of each school. Here's the problem: imagine there are two schools. One is in a well-to-do neighborhood where education is a priority, most students have private tutors and all are performing just barely below the NCLB target goals.

The other school is in an area where fewer parents are highly educated and children have greater financial pressures. These students are performing well below the target goals. Now, to continue receiving Title I funding, both schools must get their students to the same level of academic performance.

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