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“Fixing” No Child Left Behind or Reauthorizing ESEA: Questioning The Federal Role in Education by Victoria Young

“Fixing” No Child Left Behind or Reauthorizing ESEA: Questioning The Federal Role in Education by Victoria Young

Originally Published by The Daily Kos on February 10, 2015 

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is the first federal “accountability” law (2001) ever set for the whole K-12 public education system. The laws’ foundation is the idea that standards and testing for math and reading/language arts produces test scores by which we can judge our schools. The belief is that by making a school’s scores known that “competition” will improve schools because the law also provides “choice.”

The “accountability” piece sets the federal government’s role as monitoring the quality of standards and tests as well as compliance with all elements of the law. The “choice” provided gives the federal government another new role in education — “start-up costs” for charter schools.

The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is unrecognizable as the law of origin for NCLB. ESEA is the first federal law aimed at “strengthen this nation’s elementary and secondary schools” by focusing on the needs of “educationally deprived children.”

ESEA’s foundational belief is that by improving the education of the poor and disadvantaged, the country would be taking a big step forward, as a national goal, in ensuring equal access to quality education. The mechanism was to identify and address unmet needs in instructional materials and student supports while encouraging overall improvements through dissemination of useful information for leaders, teachers, counselors, parents, and communities.

Here is a one-page chart for comparing NCLB to our first federal K-12 education law, the 1965 ESEA.

With our representatives working to “fix” NCLB, there are many questions this nation ought to be asking.

After five decades of changes and additions to ESEA, what do we now need in our federal education law?

Should No Child Left Behind be salvaged and continue as our educational law of the land? Or, is it time to revisit the foundation of federal education law and review both our progress and our missteps?

Reviewing the missteps of No Child Left Behind is fairly easy; there is much agreement about what is wrong. To grasp where we began 50 years ago with the 1965 ESEA is a bit more of a problem because very few people are bringing its history forward. We should.

There are a multitude of studies and opinions written about why No Child Left Behind did not “work.”

Gary Ratner from Citizens for Effective Schools provides us with this insight.


It’s unscientific…The annual “progress” percentages are arbitrary and unfounded.

It’s not fact-based… NCLB’s punishment scheme presumes that “failing” schools and districts know what to do to dramatically improve learning for their children and have the capacity to do it.

It induces manipulation… NCLB does not recognize that an approach that puts overwhelming emphasis on producing “high” test scores…will induce widespread manipulation of state/local testing criteria and concentration on “drill and kill” techniques to raise test scores.

It’s ineffective… [NCLB’s approach] will not cause widespread enhancement of teachers’ and administrators’ knowledge, skills, and abilities, raise the level of the curriculum or increase the extent of family support.

It’s unrealistic. … [Demands] all states’ departments of education must provide [Title I schools and districts] with technical assistance and support to enable them to [achieve the goal.] [The reality is that many] states are a long way from having the capacity to carry out [NCLB’s] mandates.

It’s unworkable…If NCLB could sustain the same improvement rates of 3% and 10% per decade in the future, it would take about 280 more years to raise the remaining 85% of poor and minority students to “proficiency” in reading and eighty-five more years to do so in math.

In “Flawed Assumptions: How No Child Left Behind Fails Principals” James Kim, Associate Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, stated the problem this way:

“The law is based on the assumption that external accountability and the imposition of sanctions will force schools to improve and motivate teachers to change their instructional practices, resulting in better school performance.”

And Ellen Forte from edCount, LLC, provided us with visuals along with her analysis in “Examining the Assumptions Underlying the NCLB Federal Accountability Policy on School Improvement” (EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGIST 45(2), 76–88, 2010):

“The assumptions underlying the NCLB policy logic hold that schools in need of improvement can be identified via a large-scale algorithm, that pre-established sanctions applied to these schools will lead to their improvement and that these improvements in identified schools will yield increases in student achievement. This argument is compelling for its simplicity and apparent rationality, but its assumptions seem to lack merit.”


NCLB has a very wide range of flaws and “unintended consequences” including the detrimental effects resulting from narrowing what is taught. More times than not, detractors of NCLB place the blame on the heavy emphasis on educational “outcomes” (scores) while ignoring the fact that we have never adequately documented and addressed our failure to offer equal opportunities to learn.

Educational opportunity is as important now as it was 50 years ago.

Writers of the 1965 ESEA attempted to establish social justice in the public education system by:

(1) deeming it imperative to put in place within the system the dissemination of “promising educational practices” to better ensure their use;
(2) designating funds for school library resources, textbooks, and other instructional materials; and
(3) funding supplementary educational centers and services making sure to use the existing “cultural and educational resources of the areas to be served” (1965 ESEA).

In other words, ESEA set out to improve educational opportunities by:
★ increasing access to information,
★ increasing access to essential educational resources, and
★ providing the necessary community services where they were lacking.

And less than a year later, the 1966 National Advisory Council on the Education of Disadvantaged Children issued the first review on the law’s implementation.

They noted successes in identifying problems that interfere with learning. This was accomplished by having local school officials identify their students needs and address those neglected needs. It wasn’t a “program” or “model” so much as a true improvement process focused on students. It wasn’t about offering “wraparound services”; it was a process aimed at determining a school and community’s unique gaps in services and resources and filling the gaps in a targeted and effective way by first using existing, but often underutilized, community resources before adding anything “new” in the way of “programs.” Here’s how it looked after almost a year.


attribution: 1966 National Advisory Council on the Education of Disadvantaged Children
Were there problems? Of course! Much like today, the council emphasized the need for better trained leadership. Leaders needed to understand the underlying concept in ESEA. In a country that had condoned and practiced legal discrimination, this was asking people to make a huge leap.


And the writers of ESEA asked for something more from communities. They asked for cooperation and a coordination of “projects” to center on the needs of the poor.


The implementation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act occurred while schools were under orders to desegregate. It was not an easy task.
But within a decade of this 1965 education law being put in place, “effective schools” were being studied. These were schools with high numbers of poor and “minority” children yet the students that may once have been labeled “educationally-deprived” were now called “high-achieving” in spite of the schools demographics. And in the 70’s and 80’s, the nation saw a significant narrowing of the achievement gap.

Was this cause and effect? Was it just a casual relationship of policies and practices? Or, did federal education law shine a light on practices that proved to be the right things for poor students and all students in schools in impoverished communities?


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