Does No Child Left Behind Deserve a Passing Grade?

A decade in, the controversial education program has made little progress.
No Child Left Behind has been a boon for statisticians, but not so much for students. (Photo: Getty Images)
Jan 6, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

A decade ago, on January 8, 2002, George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation went into effect, requiring all U.S. pubic school students to meet certain math and reading requirements.

Almost immediately, the law became the easy punching bag of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Last October, after repeatedly criticizing the program, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan decided to grant states waivers from the Bush-era 2014 deadline for student reading and math proficiency if they submitted alternative accountability plans.

It's clear the program isn't working. But has it been a total failure? On the eve of its ten-year anniversary, here's a quick look at both the good and bad.


First, the bad. This year just 48 percent of U.S. schools—the largest percentage since the law was enacted 10 years ago—failed to meet the "adequate yearly progress" benchmarks imposed under the law. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, high school seniors' reading and math scores in 2010 remained below 1992 levels, when the test was first administered. Not only have students' knowledge of civics, history and science stagnated in the past decade, little progess has been made in narrowing the stubborn achievement gap between white and black students.

Even more concerning, perhaps, is the spate of cheating scandals across the country. With so much pressure placed on standardized tests, countless educators are giving in to temptation and either teaching "towards" the test or blatantly helping students cheat. An investigation by USA Today revealed at least 1,610 cases of standardized test-score manipulation in six states and Washington, D.C., between 2009 and 2010, and that was just focusing on only the most suspicious test-score leaps. No doubt there are many thousands more that are guilty of doing a disservice to themselves and their students.

The bottom line, as always, may be cost. Since 2000, federal funding for No Child Left Behind has increased 73 percent, but student achievement has remained flat. We're just not getting enough bang for our buck: American high school students, who spend approximately 1,000 hours in school each year, are being outperformed in math and science by Polish high school students, who spend just 595 hours in high school per year. Said Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee in Education Week:

"The valuable new school-by-school reports produced by No Child Left Behind can provide material for more accurate and useful school report cards devised by parents, school boards, governors, and the secretary of education. But the real job of creating better schools remains where it always has been, with parents and teachers and citizens in their own communities."


There is some evidence that No Child Left Behind has had a major impact on elementary and middle school children, especially minorities. In reading, 9-year-olds scored 12 points higher in 2008 than they did in 1971, with black students scoring 34 points higher. In mathematics, the difference was less extreme but still significant: 9-year-olds saw a 24-point increase over 1973, with black students scoring a 34-point increase.

But with all these test scores plateauing once students reach high school, the ultimate legacy of NCLB may be in the valuable trove of statistics that it has provided. Even if it hasn't revamped our education system, it can at least tell us which areas need to be addressed, and its emphasis on equity, transparency, and accountability is a step in the right direction. Said California Congressman George Miller in Education Week:

"Before NCLB’s passage, only a handful of states had access to data that showed student achievement broken down by gender, ethnicity, income, or English proficiency. The rest of the country was largely in the dark on how children were faring. Even worse, without knowing how much students were struggling in the classroom, no one felt the urgency to fix the problem. No Child Left Behind changed that."

In other words, No Child Left Behind may not have been a complete failure. But we're still crossing our fingers it doesn't make it to an eleventh year.