Save It or Scrap It?

Peter Wood

No Child Left Behind (NCLB, pronounced nickel-bee) was enacted into law in 2002. It has been the Bush administration’s signature contribution to domestic policy aimed at “closing the gap” between disadvantaged and high-performing students.  And it has been fiercely controversial. 

Mostly it has been opposed by teachers unions, which have complained without stop that the legislation forces teachers into the narrow practice of “teaching to the test,” e.g. the regime of standardized tests that NCLB requires each state to put in place.  Many observers, however, note that the teachers unions have an additional cause of NCLB-anxiety:  the act punishes public schools that fail to make improvements. 

NCLB has also attracted criticism beyond the teachers unions.  In 2004, some 135 organizations signed a Joint Organizational Statement on No Child Left Behind calling for significant reforms in the reforming.  Other critics have opined that some states set the bar remarkably low for year to year progress.  Many districts seem to play a shell game to avoid any real restructuring of schools that fail to make the grade.  And schools have been found encouraging poor-performing students to drop out, so the school’s average test grades will appear higher.  In short, the American educationist colossus has studied NCLB and learned how to game it.  Real education reform remains, as always, elusive.

The debate over NCLB has not played a high profile part in this year’s presidential campaigns, but each of the candidates has had something to say.  NAS is, of course, strongly interested in K-12 education reform. The quality of preparation of students exercises strong influence on what higher education itself can accomplish.  In that light, we’re interested in what the presidential candidates have to say about NCLB.

Though Senators McCain and Obama will appear on the November ballot, we include Senator Clinton in this account because she has declared that, come what may, she intends to continue her advocacy on this issue. 

Whichever candidate becomes president will have to decide whether to rev up NCLB for another term or to scrap it. McCain says “repair it, but stick to the plan” while Obama and Clinton say “salvage what you can, but ditch the rest.”


After Congress passed it in 2001, NCLB was signed into law in January 2002.  Through it, states issue standards for K-12 education and hold schools accountable to those standards. Grades 3-8 take a standardized test every year to measure progress in reading and math, with a science test thrown in every few years. Each state sets its own achievement standards and can format the test as it chooses—usually settling on multiple choice.  Schools that meet these standards are rewarded, and schools that fall short are sanctioned. A school that falls short may lose funding. If it consistently performs poorly, it will be subject to restructuring or state-take-over until Adequate Yearly Progress is achieved. Since the standards aren’t federal, there may be discrepancies between, say, Arkansas and Oregon’s standard of Adequate Yearly Progress.

The plan also proposes to give parents options when it comes to their children’s schooling. If a school is failing, parents have the option to transfer their child to a higher performing school. The plan also funds public charter schools for an extra dose of choice.

NCLB is currently up for reauthorization. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has announced several proposed modifications to the Act, focusing on “improved accountability and transparency, uniform and disaggregated graduation rates and improved parental notification.” The final decisions will be determined this summer.


Hillary Clinton originally supported NCLB when President Bush introduced it in 2001. She maintains that she still supports the principles that inspired it, but disowns the Act in its current state. By cutting funding, the Bush administration betrayed the principles of the Act. Apart from cutting the budget by $12 million, he cut “programs targeted at improving the performance of students that are most at risk of not receiving a college education.”

Note, the risk:  the children “at risk” are those who might not go to college.

When Senator Clinton originally voted for the law, she foresaw “record investment” in schools, but she has been disappointed.

In fact, there has been “record investment” and in six years the original budget has been expanded by 40%. But apparently that’s not enough for the Senator.

Because of Bush’s “broken promise,” Clinton is now calling for a complete revamping of NCLB, if not its elimination. That is, she wants to increase funding and throw out standardized testing as an indicator of success or failure. Furthermore, Clinton wants to distinguish between schools that are utterly failing and those that are just struggling.

Clinton favors funding charter schools as part of the public schools system but opposes “voucher schemes” for private education.  Vouchers, in her view, siphon money from needy public schools and distribute it to private schools, which aren’t held accountable to the same state standards.

(Voucher advocates see the attempt to limit vouchers to public schools as undermining the whole concept.  Instead of providing students with alternatives to sub-par public schools, these vouchers-in-name-only would lock students into the public school gulag.)

Clinton also proudly proclaims her early vote for sustainability. The Healthy, High Performance Schools Act of 2001 was legislation that proposed funding to make schools more energy efficient, improve air quality, and eliminate “environment hazards.”


Like Clinton, Obama calls for overhauling NCLB. The first step is more funding for the program. Without the money, the program cannot succeed. The second step is to retool standardized testing as a method for highlighting problems. Teachers, administrators, and parents are frustrated by the constraints in the classroom imposed by a test-oriented curriculum. There is no time for art or music or physical education when none of those subjects will be tested. Teachers are encouraged to “teach-to-the-test” because stakes are high when the test results determine a school’s funding for the following year. Schools that are struggling ought to be supported, not punished. These schools need funding so that they can fix the problems.

Also, Obama proposes warding off problems by funding “Zero-to-Five” education. Pre-school education supposedly sets a child up for success in his or her elementary through high school years. It’s been suggested, however, that while a pre-schooled child will excel for the first couple years of primary school, the “fade-out” effect soon sets in. If schools aren’t maintaining the accelerated learning, the child will slip back to an average performance. That is, Obama is concentrating on pre-schools when he should be improving elementary schools.

Second to increased funding, Obama suggests that instead of charging schools with the entire responsibility of educating America’s children, parents should take more responsibility. To implement that solution, districts would issue school-family contracts for accountability. In other words, parents would make a pledge to the school that they will bring their children to school on time every day, help with homework, create out-of-the-classroom education opportunities, turn off the TV, etc.


McCain favors extending NCLB, but with some major improvements. He sees that it has problems, but it has successfully drawn attention to problem schools. For the first time, failing schools are bobbing to the surface. Once their ailing ways are illuminated, schools are penalized. This gives schools tangible incentives to improve.

He says that parents have a “fundamental and essential right” to choose which school their child will attend. If wealthy congressmen have that right, so should the average parent. And, as a bonus, competition is the road to improvement. Parent choice means incentive for schools to step it up. Favoring the “voucher scheme” that Hillary “strongly opposes,” McCain wants parents to choose among public, private, and charter schools.

Testing gives administrators an objective assessment of teachers as well as students. If a teacher’s students perform well on the test, he or she will be rewarded for good work with increased pay. Salary is now based primarily on level of education and years of experience—not skill in the classroom.  

The National Association of Scholars

The NAS isn’t endorsing any presidential candidate.  Nor do we have the sort of proposal for K-12 education reform that is likely to sweep all others ideas before it in the current political scene.  But we do have some views.  NCLB mandated that all teachers had to be “highly qualified” by the end of the 2006-07 school year.  The definition of “highly qualified,” however, fell ludicrously short of the mark. A teacher reaches that summit by fulfilling state certification requirements, earning a bachelor’s degree, and demonstrating expertise in her subject for the grade-level in which she teaches.  The details hardly matter, however, since NCLB left in place the institution primarily responsible for the overall poor quality of American teaching:  the schools of education.  We have built a system over the last century that instills in would-be teachers hapless pedagogies based on the long-discredited psychological theories of turn-of-the-last-century progressives. NCLB was compromised from the outset by the fatuous notion that teachers dyed in the vat of progressive educationist theory would suddenly hearken to a trumpet call to begin focusing on intellectual substance, rather than “process,” self-esteem, diversity, whole language, constructivist math, and the rest of what the ed school critic Richard Mitchell called, in a moment of inspiration, “the Leaning Tower of Babel.”

At NAS, we don’t think school vouchers are a cure-all, but we do think that they push in the right direction. Giving parents a choice and a practical way to opt-out of failing schools serves students and puts constructive pressure on the public schools to improve their performance.

As for the criticism that NCLB forces teachers to “teach to the test,” the phrase is overdue for deconstruction. We don’t think formal testing is the be-all of education, but it is a tool with an ancient pedigree and it generally works.  The complaints about being forced to “teach to the test” seem to come from teachers who would prefer to teach subjects other than those NCLB names as priorities, and from teachers who would prefer not to be held accountable for how well their students learn.  The latter indeed worries all teachers, including college professors, since we all face at least some students who are unable or uninterested in learning.  Somewhere deep in the bowels of the NCLB is a silly assumption that no child need be left behind—that all can learn reasonably well if only the teachers stepped up to the task. 

Time and again education in America is tripped up by excesses of idealism.  The progressives vainly imagined every child is a creative genius waiting only for the opportunity to flourish.  NCLB vainly imagines that every obstacle to learning can be overcome by good teaching and good testing.    All too often these approaches have yielded huge increases in cost accompanied by feeble improvement or even decline in student learning. 

The next President will inherit a problem for which we don’t think there is a single or a simple solution. 

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