‘No Child Left Behind’ Held Everybody Back

‘No Child Left Behind’ Held Everybody Back

Don’t get all butt-hurt, my GOP-leaning friends and Dubya lovers. I know y’all get insane when he and his presidency come up. This isn’t a post criticizing Bush. It’s simply a commentary on the entire education legislation #fail.

Before the 1950s, public schools in America were a hodge-podge. Schools ranged from little red houses where the librarian taught kids of all ages to urban settings with large class numbers.

The types and quality of education varied just as much. Low-income urban AND rural areas didn’t have the same resources as suburban middle-class areas. There were no standards for school performance. Some students got decent educations, and others didn’t.

Then, the US started to change.

State governments grew during that time. The federal government took on a new role, rooted in its involvement during the New Deal Era, and began acting to create equal opportunities and access. And, as the Civil Rights Movement raged on its fight for equal rights, things changed.

People were moving to new areas, dictated largely by income. Minority groups were mostly located in urban areas. The suburbs had fewer minorities, higher incomes, and better schools. Many saw the de facto segregation and racial inequality in the education system.

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen time and again, when the government gets involved with spreading equality, quality suffers.

That’s what happened in public schools.

Politickin’ Starts Early

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, signed by LBJ, was a civil rights law that provided funding to states and attempted to ensure every student access to an education. It was one element of LBJ’s “War on Poverty”.

ESEA’s stated purpose was to close the skill gap in reading, writing and mathematics between children from low-income households who attended urban or rural schools and children from the middle-class who attended suburban schools.

Studies conducted since the original authorization of the ESEA in 1965 show an inverse relationship between student achievement and school poverty—student achievement has been found to decrease as school poverty increases. According to the US Department of Education, students from low-income households are three times as likely to be low achievers if they attend high-poverty schools.

But, what is being an “achiever”?

It’s a vague term that is completely subjective to each individual.

Here’s the thing:

When government officials pass laws, they use their own vocabulary.  Check out the Dept. of Education’s glossary of terms.

Here’s the other thing:

Nobody’s paying attention, so they accept the words as they appear, taking them to mean what everybody thinks they mean.

Don’t believe me?

Do you know what the Patriot Act actually is?

It’s the U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T Act.

Know what that acronym stands for?

“Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism”

What are appropriate tools?

Whatever they want them to be. Because people are afraid of terrorism and say to themselves, “Well, I’m no terrorist. That can’t hurt me, because for people who want to hurt me.”

People hear “terrorism” and they imagine bearded Allah-worshippers. But what’s the definition of terrorism?

The term “domestic terrorism” encompasses activities that are:

  • dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State, and
  • are intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or are undertaken to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping while in the jurisdiction of the United States.

Trying to coerce people to see a different viewpoint is terrorism. Taking an anti-government stance, no matter the legitimacy of that stance, could be considered terrorism.

Do you see how slippery that slope is?

Do you see how the fearmongers could take this to an extreme under the guise of nicely-phrased, seemingly-positive measures?

Like I tell my government students every semester:


The same applies to education.

“No child left behind” sounds great. It sounds like we’re going to grab those under-performing kids and pull them up to the level everyone else is at, up to par, or up to their potential.

That’s not the way it’s worked.

Schools didn’t turn into dens of learning. With ESEA, they were bound by federal guidelines, and things have only gotten worse.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Inequality persisted and still exists, no matter how many acts, re-writes, and re-authorizations politicians attempt.

Under ESEA, Title I funding was dealt by a district-wide determination of the percentage of low-income families, using the same poverty measure to rank all its school attendance areas.

In school districts, there can be drastic disparity in income levels of each school. If funding was meant to equal the playing field, how can giving schools the same amounts achieve that? If you judge based on the wealthier schools, lower-income schools suffer from lack of funds. If you judge based on the low-income schools, wealthier schools end up with more resources.

On top of that, to receive ESEA funding, all districts and schools had to meet adequate yearly progress goals.

Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the reauthorization of ESEA by George Bush, a system of testing and accountability was put into place to fix the still-present achievement gap. The ESEA’s attempt to fix it by equal funding got an added layer: testing equally.

“The fundamental principle of this bill is that every child can learn, we expect every child to learn, and you must show us whether or not every child is learning,” President George W. Bush, at the Jan. 8, 2002, signing ceremony

Enter the “Teachers just teach to the test” stage…

Major complaints during the NCLB era centered around the idea that schools focused too heavily on test performance, sacrificing actual student enrichment.

Colleges and universities complained that students were arriving with inferior critical-thinking skills and lacking in curiosity.

States that wanted their fair share of federal funding were required to fix schools that failed to improve test scores adequately. Those “interventions” started out with softer measures, but after five years the school had a limited number of dire choices: fire the principal and most of the staff, convert to a charter school, lengthen the school day or year, or close down the school entirely.

The test became paramount. That’s where the money was. (There’s no money in creating quality student minds!) The incentives for those in charge were about job safety.

Public education became a business. It became less about successful education, and more about being a successful school. The term “institutions of learning” became laughable. Students were cogs in the school machine, mere tools in getting that school money.

Creating one [painfully-low] standard for everyone did nothing for high-performing students and was a disservice to the rest. The standard was equal for everyone on paper, but it was still produced unequal results—the achievement gap remained, the % of achievers didn’t change.

Equal funding didn’t work.

Equal testing didn’t work.

They were measures that looked good, but didn’t do good.

Things Are Better… (says under breath: Because We Lowered the Bar)

Results-driven funding didn’t do much for equality or quality. It was more of a Sword of Damocles. Negative reinforcement. Even the president of the NEA teachers union criticized NCLB’s “test, blame and punish” approach.

Enter: the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The newest education law tries to preserve the spirit of NCLB, while fixing its one-size-fits-all approach. President Obama, who signed the law into effect, said:

“The goals of No Child Left Behind, the predecessor of this law, were the right ones: High standards. Accountability. Closing the achievement gap, but in practice, it often fell short. It didn’t always consider the specific needs of each community. It led to too much testing during classroom time. It often forced schools and school districts into cookie-cutter reforms that didn’t always produce the kinds of results that we wanted to see.”

ESSA stripped away the national features of No Child Left Behind and turned the remnants over to the states.

Many states failed to meet NCLB’s standards, and the Obama Administration granted waivers to them for schools that showed success but failed under the NCLB standards. Not the extensive federal plan anymore, states, just go on through.

The NCLB was generally praised for forcing schools and states to become more accountable for ensuring the education of at-risk children. ESSA leaves accountability goals almost entirely up to the states. States must submit their accountability plans to the Department of Education, which still has a limited oversight role. And there are “guardrails” defining broadly what the accountability goals need to include, and test scores and graduation rates must be given “much greater weight” than the more subjective measures.

ESSA is much more specific about which schools need intervention but much less specific about what those interventions should be. Schools in the bottom 5% (as defined by the state), high schools that graduate less than 67% of students, or schools where subgroups are consistently underperforming would be considered failing and could be subject to state takeover — although the law doesn’t say what the state needs to do.

Way to lead, federal government… when the game isn’t going in your favor, just change the rules.

Zero-to-low standards means more people will meet them!

The US won’t look as terrible worldwide when Reuters and Pew look at test results and academic performance!

You didn’t meet the standards? What standards??

This should work nicely in states that really value education, like Texas or Arkansas. They’ll set the bar wherever they feel, and still get their money.


We look to the government entirely too much to solve our problems. And… umm… it hasn’t done well since, like, the 1860s.

You can’t fix a student’s shitty attitude or their parents’ poor leadership skills through legislation.

You can’t FORCE people to learn.

And you can’t really punish the kids who are there to learn for their peers’ poor performance. The kids who will achieve will do so no matter if they’re learning in the Taj Mahal or a dumpster.

It’s about character.

It’s about the value placed on education. And I’m talking about REAL education, not showing up to school and getting by. I’m talking about teaching kids to love learning for learning’s sake and having the grit to go in and face new material, new skills, and tests with determination. I’m talking about teaching them the ways of the world, which includes how to work teachers to get that extra information. It’s teaching them to make the best of their situation, whether they go to Highland Park High School or Po-Dunk City High School.

It’s mixing the batter that will bake into quality adults.

That’s on parents.

That’s on extended family.

That’s on teachers.

That’s one principals.

That’s on kids once they’re old enough.

That’s NOT on government.

Side note: Obama’s reauthorization of ESEA also allows military recruiters access to 11th and 12th grade students’ names, addresses, and telephone listings when requested. Boooo…

In case you want to read more