No Child Left Behind, a bi-partisan education initiative, was signed into law in 2001 by George W. Bush. NCLB has increased the federal government’s involvement in education tremendously. Up until then, curriculum issues, standardized testing, and other significant issues regarding education was left solely up to the states.
From the outset, the constitution did not mention education, so it has always fallen under the realm of “states’ rights.” The Department of Education was primarily concerned with grant funding only.
Two precursors of NCLB were America 2000, promoted by George H.W. Bush and then DOE president Lamar Alexander, and Goals 2000, an initiative proposed under Bill Clinton. These two predecessors of NCLB, as well as NCLB itself, came as a direct result of the 1983 white paper entitled, “A Nation at Risk.” This treatise proclaimed that American students were not making the grade, and were increasingly inadequately prepared for the marketplace because of the pressure teachers felt to deal with social problems of their students.
Indeed, historically, many social issues have been addressed through the public school system (i.e., Brown vs. The Board of Education and other civil rights issues). In the 1950s, there was growing alarm in the United States over the fact that Russia “beat us to the punch” and launched Sputnik. A renewed emphasis on math and science quelled public unease during the cold War.
Then, in 1965, as part of his “Great Society Agenda”, Pres. Johnson signed his “Elementary and Secondary Education” Act, which appropriated funds (referred to as Title I funding) to districts whose poverty levels among its students were at least 40%.
Though the idea behind NCLB has evolved since the publication of “A Nation at Risk”, it is not without its critics. Most professionals concede that NCLB is a start, and that the ultimate goal is a sound one. However, here are some of the criticisms at this juncture:
Because of budgetary concerns, the strong emphasis on reading and math skills has caused some schools to reduce, or eliminate altogether, courses in liberal arts and physical education.
Another budgetary apprehension: some states are uneasy about the fact that while the federal government is mandating test scores, the states themselves are required to fulfill those mandates despite budget cuts.
Many educators feel they are forced to “teach to the test” to the point that the actual goal of NCLB cannot be realistically met. Teachers feel compelled to focus a great deal of time getting students ready to “make the grade”.
Some feel that standardized testing is a poor way to determine a student’s (and therefore, a school’s) academic progress. Some students (such as kinetic learners), they argue, simply are not good at taking tests, while others, who may have not actually mastered the material, can rely on the fact that they test well.
While children haven’t changed over the last twenty years, what’s required of them has. What used to be considered necessary for a child to enter kindergarten is now pushed down into preschools, in order to get kids ready for testing, especially benchmark testing of 4th and 8th graders.
Many preschool and primary school educators believe that the focus on testing ignores the way young children learn the best: experientially. In an effort to prepare for testing, time spent in learning centers where children learn through play has been reduced.
Some educators believe that NCLB’s requirement of “Adequate Yearly Progress” is too vague to reach for.
In order to adequately compare a school against itself, many secondary principles believe that only students who start out in a particular school district should determine, based on standardized testing, how well a school is performing. They argue that if a student comes from a district that is failing into one that is doing well, that student’s scores could unfairly bring down the rating of the district the student relocates to.
And, finally, even those experts who believe that NCLB is ultimately on the right path towards educational excellence concede that it has its limitations. Recent studies have shown that family environment is critical in helping determine a student’s success or failure within the public school system. School districts, in other words, can only do so much. The federal government, many believe, has done all it can. The rest is up to us as a society.
NCLB is up for reauthorization in 2008, although many believe that it will not happen until 2009 because of the election. Regardless, there will have to be a consensus on how best to proceed as we review the last seven years. Hopefully, we can look beyond our partisan differences to effect positive change for all American students in all American school districts, as NCLB continues to evolve.