McGuinn on the Origins of No Child Left Behind

Patrick McGuinn discusses the origins of No Child Left Behind in American educational policy:

In retrospect, some observers have been inclined to see the centrist compromises that paved the way for passage of the No Child Left Behind law as inevitable, but the negotiations over the bill encountered a number of substantial challenges and its provisions changed considerably during the legislative process. Agreement 00 the broad principles of reform by no means implied agreement on the specific measures, timetables, and resources that would be necessary to achieve them. Given the acrimonious national debates over school reform in the 1980s and 1990s, and the considerable remaining differences within and between the Republican and Democratic parties, the ultimate shape that NCLB would take was unclear as it began to wind its way through Congress. …

The “No Child Left Behind Act” (hereafter, NCLB) was the first bill he sent to Congress, and it became the focal point of the new legislature’s early deliberations. Two strategic decisions about NCLB proved crucial to how the legislative negotiations unfolded: Bush’s decision to submit an outline of his education reform ideas rather than detailed legislative language, and his decision to seek a bipartisan bill rather than attempt to force a Republican bill through Congress on a narrow party-line vote. …

At the heart of the bill was a fundamental trade-off—it put in place a number of prescriptive new mandates on states and school districts but in exchange for meeting the new demands gave them greater flexibility in how they use increased federal funds. The most important requirements in the new law are that states must adopt academic standards to guide their curricula and adopt a testing and accountability system that is aligned with those standards. States must test all students in grades 3-8 every year (as well as once in high school) in math and reading beginning in the 2005-2006 school year (see Table 9.2). States are required to annually test the English proficiency of students for whom English is not their first language, and by the 2007-2008 school year, states must also test all students in science at certain grade levels. States are free to develop and use their own standards and tests, but every school, school district, and state will have to make student test results publicly available and disaggregated for certain groups of students, including; major racial and ethnic groups, major income groups, students with a disability, students with limited English proficiency, and migrant students. States also have to administer the math and reading portions of a national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), every other year to a sample of their students in grades four and eight to check the effectiveness of state standards and to provide a means of comparability of student performance across states.

NCLB also requires that by 2005-2006, states have a “highly qualified teacher” in every classroom where core academic subjects are taught. States must establish a timetable of intermediate steps to reach this goal. In addition, the act required that all new teachers hired with Title I funds had to be highly qualified. “Highly qualified” is specified as meaning that a teacher must be fully certified or licensed, hold a bachelor’s degree, and show competence in subject knowledge and teaching skills. NCLB mandates that every state and school district issue report cards that detail student test scores and identify those schools that have failed to meet proficiency targets and are in need of “program improvement.” The law also gives parents, for the first time, the right to request information from schools about teacher qualifications. This wealth of information has never before been made widely available on a consistent basis, and it is certain to provide parents and education reformers alike with a large amount of new data from which to make judgments about the progress of school improvement efforts. NCLB explicitly requires that states use this information to track their efforts to close the achievement gaps on reading and math between different racial, ethnic, and income groups. States are required to establish a timeline (with regular benchmarks) for making “adequate yearly progress” toward eliminating these gaps and moving all students to state proficiency levels within twelve years.

The law’s accountability provisions require states to take a number of escalating actions with schools that do not reach their performance objectives. A school that fails to meet state performance targets for two consecutive years must be given technical assistance from the district to help it improve, and students in the school must be given the option to transfer to another public school in the district. The local school board must pay for some of the cost of transporting students who elect to use the choice option to their new schools. If a school does not improve in the third year, students will be given the option of using their share of Title I funds to pay for tutoring or other supplemental educational services (which can be provided by private companies). Schools that fail for four consecutive years must implement corrective actions such as replacing staff or adopting a new curriculum, and in the fifth year the failing school must be reconstituted with a new governance structure (such as by reopening as a charter school). …

The new federal focus on accountability and the extension of federal policy to cover every student and every school in the country mark a major shift in the governance of elementary and secondary education in the United States.


McGuinn, Patrick J. 2006. No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965-2005. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas. pp. 165-7, 177-9. || Amazon || WorldCat


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