No Child Left Behind vs. Race to the Top

David Boyles

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

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are the signature education initiatives of our past two presidents. They have had a profound impact on education in the United States, though few people know exactly what they are and how they differ.

Educating America's Children

Throughout most of U.S. history, education was an issue that was mainly dealt with at the state and local level. Most public education systems are run by cities, which are in turn overseen by a state department of education. The United States Department of Education was not even created until 1979, making it one of the youngest of the Cabinet-level federal departments overseen by the President of the United States.

States and their local districts are still largely responsible for the operation of public schools but the Department of Education exerts a large influence due to the billions of dollars it distributes to states and school districts every year. And presidents have often tried to influence education policy by attaching certain restrictions and expectations to that money.

Our two most recent presidents, President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, both made education a central issue of their campaigns and enacted signature programs that directed how the Department of Education's money was spent. President Bush's No Child Left Behind program, which was passed into law in 2001, and President Obama's Race to the Top, which began in 2009, both try to raise standards for schools across the country. However, they go about it in different ways.

No Child Left Behind

President Bush's No Child Left Behind Program (NCLB) was passed by Congress in 2001 and was in effect, in various forms, until 2015. Though the program changed over time, its basic tenant was that schools which receive Title I funding from the Department of Education, which go to school districts that serve poor students, must meet a set of goals known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

The program left it up to individual states to define AYP, but AYP was typically measured by a series of state assessments, known commonly as standardized testing. Schools that did not meet the defined goals on their standardized testing have to go through a series of corrective actions, which could include firing the administration of the school and even closing the school or converting it to a charter school (a privately-run school that still receives funding from the state).

The other major aspect of NCLB was the idea of 'highly qualified' teachers. The program mandated that all teachers must be highly qualified but left it to the states to determine what that meant. Typically, it meant teachers must have a certain number of college credit hours in the subject they teach or other experience that went above and beyond the previous expectations for teachers.

Race to the Top

Race to the Top (RTTT) is a program that was proposed by the new President Obama in 2009 and passed as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (commonly known as the 'stimulus' bill). The program dedicated $4.35 billion to a competitive grant program to improve education.

Under RTTT, states applied to receive a portion of $4.35 billion in the form of a grant. To qualify for the grant, states had to meet various requirements, including performance-based evaluations for teachers, adopting common standards, not prohibiting charter schools and turning around low-performing schools.

Nineteen states received some of the RTTT money throughout the 3 rounds of application, though the program had an effect beyond those states. Only four states (Alaska, North Dakota, Texas, and Vermont) did not apply for RTTT at any point, and most of the other 46 states, including those that didn't get money, changed their policies in an attempt to qualify.

Comparing NCLB and RTTT

First of all, it is important to understand the major differences in the ways NCLB and RTTT were administered, as RTTT did not 'replace' NCLB, which is a common misconception. NCLB was passed as a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which supplies annual funds to states and school districts, such as the Title I funding for schools that serve underprivileged students. This is annual, ongoing money, NCLB just put new requirements in place for states to receive the money.

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Additional Activities

Prompts About No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top:

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay of at least three to four paragraphs that explains No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Be sure to discuss the goals of NCLB, and the roles of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), standardized testing, and charter schools. Also be sure to examine the role of the states in carrying out NCLB.

Example: AYP was frequently measured by performance on standardized tests.

Essay Prompt 2:

In an essay of at least three to four paragraphs, describe Race to the Top (RTTT). Be sure to discuss the circumstances under which it was enacted, what it meant for schools, and the role of the states in it.

Example: RTTT did not replace NCLB. It was enacted as part of a stimulus package during the Great Recession of 2009.

Graphic Organizer Prompt:

Make a poster, chart, or other type of graphic organizer that compares and contrasts the similarities and differences of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

Example: NCLB and RTTT both helped promote the growth of charter schools.

Letter Prompt:

Pretend it is 2009 and Race to the Top was just passed. Imagine that you are a representative of a state school board and you are writing a letter to the US Department of Education. In your letter, explain the efforts the schools in your state have made in order to qualify for an RTTT grant.

Example: Your state has systematically fired teachers who had consistently poor performance-based evaluations.

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