Argumentative Essay On No Child Left Behind


This paper researches the history of the causal problems that led to U.S. government policy resulting in the No Child Left Behind Act. It explains how the topic became a public policy problem, who placed it on the policy agenda and when, what the Act does and how it works, the institutions that have acted according to its requirements so far, and the current situation as of 2012.

Background and Legislative History

According to a U.S. Department of Education document “A Guide to Education and No Child Left Behind” (2004) the origins of the Act and the principles on which it is based can be traced to the Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of education in May 1954.

Wolff (1997) stated that the verdict in the Brown case was a judicial landmark in the U.S. because it effectively overturned “separate but equal” racial segregation principles established in an interpretation of the 14th Amendment in the much earlier case of Plessy v. Ferguson. That Plessy decision effectively meant that U.S. society was segregated in many aspects; not just in schools and colleges but on buses, in restrooms, using drinking fountains and even separate black and white witness stands in courts. In effect, the “separate but equal” concept had in reality produced a very unequal society in which, following the decision in the Brown case, non-whites had to battle for true equality through civil rights marches and other actions in a campaign for true equality. Wolff mentions a prayer pilgrimage for integrated schools in May 1957, attended by circa 35,000. Then in 1959, a petition signed by 400,000 was presented to Congress, again urging the President to implement an urgent program to integrate the country’s schools.

Then, as described in “1964 Civil Rights Act” (n.d.), John F Kennedy campaigned before his 1960 election for a new act to protect civil rights. In a televised speech in June 1963, he forcibly reminded his audience of the inequalities that disadvantaged the blacks in America, but was assassinated in that November while his Civil Rights Bill was still going through Congress. Lyndon B Johnson took up the cause and – despite strong opposition from factions in the southern states – on 15th June that year the Civil Rights Act passed into law. That legislation made it illegal to discriminate on racial grounds in any public location such as a restaurant, a theater or hotel, and permitted projects federal funding to be withdrawn if racial discrimination was found. Also, firms were obliged to offer equal opportunities in employment.
Then in 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) also became law, as described in Hanna’s article in the summer 2005 issue of “Ed.”, the magazine of the Harvard School of Education. Her article states that following Kennedy’s assassination “President Lyndon B. Johnson made education and civil rights the foundation of his War on Poverty”.

Following the ESEA success came the task of ensuring that schools were observing the laws regarding racial integration, which was not always consistent. In the following years various amendments or “reauthorizations” were implemented to ensure that Act’s intents were fulfilled. One such in the Clinton era in 1994 effectively rewrote ESEA so that all states introduced a standards-based philosophy into their schools. Children were subjected to tests to measure their abilities and progress against defined standards.

Then, in his 2000 election campaign, George W Bush declared that a high priority for new legislation during his first year as President of the United States was to overhaul Federal education policy. At the very center of his plan was to introduce a compulsory annual tests regime in U.S. schools, thereby monitoring students’ progress and to penalize both states and individual schools if low scores in tests were not improved upon. This was a way to facilitate closer observance to ensure that equality actually was being achieved.

According to the report “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001”(n.d.) by the OLPA, Representative John Boehner introduced the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) on 22 March 2001. Following committee hearings and amendments in March through May, the House passed the Act (as amended) on June 14 and it was eventually signed into law by President George W Busch on January 8, 2002. It was noted in “A Guide to Education and No Child Left Behind” that the final votes taken in Senate and in Congress produced overwhelming majorities in both cases.

Effects of the NCLB

According to “A Guide to Education and No Child Left Behind” the NCLB Act “ensures accountability and flexibility as well as increased federal support for education”. It also follows the principle implicit in the Brown v. Board verdict by continuing to develop a fairer, more inclusive system of school-based education.

Jorgensen and Hoffman (2003) published an assessment report on the NCLB Act. They reported that NCLB introduced a new era of accountability, with involvement at local level and including parents, to ensure that children were learning as they should. Their report quoted Rod Paige, U.S. Secretary of Education, who said that the aim of NCLB “is to see every child in America––regardless of ethnicity, income, or background––achieve high standards.” Under NCLB, funding provided to schools has been made directly linked with accountability. Working with state-defined standards for the various grades, schools must ensure every student acquires the expected skills and knowledge levels. As the authors noted, “All means all.” The prescribed NCLB reporting systems require that every individual student is included in the data reported.
Jorgensen and Hoffman reported that at the state level, NCLB requires that each state creates an assessment system that tracks – against commonly applied instructional standards – the progress of every student. However, the NCLB regulations allow schools and school districts to have flexibility of control of teaching methods, yet at the same time remaining accountable for the results obtained. States have to assess all students in both reading and math, from third through to eighth grades. Tests are based on state standards and the results published so that performance of any school is available for all to see. In addition, schools have to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) of disadvantaged children. Schools unable to show the required progress are not just assisted in that regard, but may also be subject to corrective procedures. The states themselves are also accountable under NCLB; they are required to submit detailed reports about their plans, their standards, their reporting procedures and so on.

In return for that increased duty of accountability, states have been given much greater flexibility and control of just how they utilize federal funding made available to them. Through state administration, schools are able to assign funding as best needed, for example to help keep the best teachers, or for the purposes of professional development or training, without needing to seek federal approval separately. The states are also afforded more freedom and control in respect of programs established and operated for students learning the English language.

Jorgensen and Hoffman also point out that parents having children who are attending schools they consider might be unsafe or under-performing have the options within NCLB regulations to arrange transfer to a different school or additional tutoring. The scope of the NCLB includes the facility to support schools in the identification and utilization of successful instructional programs and to make funds available for scientifically-based teaching systems, and for teachers to use in enhancing their effective teaching methods and skills.

Jorgensen and Hoffman’s summary statement is well worth repeating verbatim:

Education opens doors to children for a lifetime and leads to their success. NCLB is the engine driving a new era of accountability for every child’s learning journey. Children who are being left behind must be identified and states will have the responsibility to provide the resources to teach every child how to read, to apply mathematics, to study, to learn—to succeed.

Although that summary statement is inspiring, not everyone saw the effects of NCLB in a positive light. Toppo (2007) writing in USA Today, discussed a range of effects of NCLB, as perceived by schoolteachers and others. Responses were mixed, although those views and reactions to NCLB pre-dated a then upcoming reauthorization of NCLB.

Views reported in Toppo’s article include that of Barbara Adderley, principal of Stanton Elementary School in Philadelphia. She feels her days are dominated by “talking about or looking at data” and attending meetings about the progress of every student. However, at her school, whereas in 2003 the children meeting state-defined reading standards were less than two in every 10, by 2005 that figure had grown to seven in 10. Toppo did point out in his article that maybe more time was needed to confirm that the NCLB was improving education nationally, partly because not all schools started immediately to follow NCLB regulations. He quotes Margaret Spellings, U.S. Education Secretary, as saying that the law wasn’t fully enacted in all U.S. States until 2006. However, Toppo maintained that NCLB has had a big influence on the school day for children and gave five major points on the ways it brought changes to schools:

  • Although senior education officials like and support NCLB, teachers generally dislike the mandated testing, especially for the younger children.
  • Because of the specific math and English teaching rules under NCLB, schools find they have less time to teach other subjects, so narrowing the curriculum.
  • Children previously overlooked (under-achievers and minority groups) now receive much more attention and even additional tutoring.
  • Schools that consistently don’t meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets can be made to add free after-school tutoring; lengthening the school day.
  • NCLB’s annual reading funding of circa $1billion targets the 5,000+ schools that teach America’s poorest 1.8 million children, though not all teachers support the teaching methods used, especially the DIBELS test method.

The Situation in 2012

Martin (July 2012) in an article published by CNN, discusses the current situation with the NCLB. Because critics complain that the Act has created a “teach to the test” culture, federal officials are permitting states to apply for waivers that allow them to set their own state standards for elements of the law, so long as they can show they will initiate reforms approved by the government, including linking test results to evaluations made by teachers. The article reports that currently around half of the country’s schools are not yet meeting NCLB targets for reading proficiency and graduation. Meanwhile, changes to NCLB that could result from a further reauthorization of the Act are blocked in Congress. It is for that reason that President Obama has agreed to these waivers, which vary in detail from state to state. In Michigan for example, Martin reports that the NCLB target date of 2014 for every student to pass the tests no longer applies. Instead, the Department of Education in Michigan will set its own date.


Racial inequality in U.S. education policies going right back to the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896 was the principal causal problem that in due course led to U.S. government policy resulting in the No Child Left Behind Act. The Act was placed on the policy agenda following introduction by Representative John Boehner in March 2001 and eventually signed into law by President George W Busch on January 8, 2002.


Good intentions are no excuse to continue a failed policy. Many bad policies in history were surely paved with good intentions. For instance, President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" was intended to dramatically reduce poverty and, in Johnson's words, "elevate hope."[1] Those who support the so-called "War on Drugs" may have some good intentions, but their program has turned into a nightmare more properly referred to as a "War on (Certain) Drugs" or a "War on Liberty" specifically aimed at minorities.[2]

The same applies to the No Child Left Behind Act. According to President George W. Bush, he wanted to "enact a plan to improve all of America's public schools, so that no child is left behind."[3] Even the late senator from Massachusetts Ted Kennedy praised the intent, "'President Bush has made education one of his top priorities." Kennedy expressed his support for the program.[4] The results of this disastrous agenda, however, not only contradict the very name of the program, but trump whatever alleged "good intention" was behind it.

On January 8th, 2002, President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), intended to improve proficiency in math and reading. It sets the expectation of 100% compliance among Title One public schools by 2013 or 2014. It passed in the House on 13 May 2001 by 384–45, and it passed in the Senate on 14 June 2001 by 91–8.

According to the bill, students in the schools must pass standardized tests. If an insufficient number pass the first year, there are no sanctions.[1] If the school's students fail a second year, then "technical assistance" is provided, whereby parents can send their children to different schools. If the parents decide to do so, then the transportation is provided by the school district of where the child lives. If the school fails a third year, then the school must pay for supplemental educational services for the students. If they fail a fourth year, then management restructuring takes place. On the fifth year of failure, all staff are replaced, and the school could turn into a charter or private school.

There are rare instances where extreme advocates on both the Left and Right agree on public policy and are opposed to a specific program. This is one of those instances, and for good reason. Notable and respected conservative George Will claims that the program "spawned lowered standards."[5] Walter E. Williams, another respected conservative and a professor of economics at George Mason University, condemned the program "that billions of dollars are spent on." He argues that "without a civilized learning environment, academic excellence is impossible no matter how much money is spent."[6] Former Republican presidential nominee Pat Buchanan denounced the program as part of Bush's "big government," rhetorically asking "what Republican ran last time for cutting back George Bush's big government?… Who stood up and said no to No Child Left Behind?"[7]

Noted economist Milton Friedman said, shortly before his death, regarding the program, "Recent federal legislation in the No Child Left Behind Act requires all states to develop regular performance measures of student learning and to make these measures publicly available. As for the typical parent who still believes his or her child attends an above-average school, what will happen when many of them learn they are wrong?" Libertarian Charles Murray said that the program "set a goal that was devoid of any contact with reality."[8]

Of course, many left-liberals are opposed to the program as well. Al Franken, for instance, in his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them criticized the NCLB program, saying that since "Congress authorized a $5.6 billion increase in Title One spending for low income children," and "President Bush budgeted only $1 billion for Title One … if Title One calls for $2,800 per poverty-level student," then "1,643,857" children will be "left behind" (pp. 349–351). Prominent socialist James Flynn, in his debate with Charles Murray in 2006, also criticized the Act.

Barack Obama said of the act, "don't come up with this law called No Child Left Behind and then leave the money behind.… Don't tell us that you'll put high-quality teachers in every classroom and then leave the support and the pay for those teachers behind.… Don't label a school as failing one day and then throw your hands up and walk away from it the next."

The reasons for opposing the program are manifold, and they are largely dependent upon whom the criticism comes from. I am opposed to the program from a libertarian, government-reduction perspective. The No Child Left Behind legislation has vastly increased standardized tests and created a muddle of federal regulations with results opposite from their intentions.

At first glance, the concept of standardized tests seems reasonable. Children should be tested, and the tests are clear indicators either of how intelligent they are or of how much the school is teaching them. But what is the school "teaching" them, exactly? The answer is simple but unfortunate: they're teaching them how to take the test.

Linda Valli, Maryland associate professor of education, conducted a long study on the federal program and determined that standardized testing "actually undermined the quality of teaching in reading and math" and that the decline in teacher quality and tangible information being taught to the students is because of "the pressure teachers were feeling to 'teach to the test.'"

Alfie Kohn, author of over a dozen books on education, parenting, and anthropology, decries NCLB's "overemphasis on standardized testing and punitive sanctions." He generally disparages the program, saying that the "law is not about narrowing the achievement gap; its main effect has been to sentence poor children to an endless regimen of test-preparation drills." And furthermore, "even if the scores do rise, it's at the expense of a quality education."[9] According to a 50-state survey by Teachers Network, a nonprofit education organization, only 3% of teachers think No Child Left Behind helps them teach more efficiently.

One infamous criticism that English teachers gave concerned the time spent on the proper use of a comma as opposed to on developmental writing skills. As Richard and JoAnne Vacca noted in their book, Content Area Reading, "good readers are often good writers," and "wide reading improves writing." However, since the federal, standardized tests place more emphasis on grammatical correctness than on reading comprehension, in the class, reading is sacrificed to punctuation precision. Virtually no person, however, would seriously argue that in the real world, reading comprehension is less important than knowing where to put a comma or knowing what verbs and nouns are. This is especially true in the real world of contracts, newspapers, etc.

NCLB is simply a way for the federal government to tighten its grip on schools by threatening them with punishment. Those who control the schools control the future. The tests and regulations indirectly control what children learn in school (and what they do not learn in school).

"Those who control the schools control the future."

More importantly, what are the results of the program? One should keep in mind, however, what Kohn said regarding the scores: the higher test scores may come at the cost of learning. However, in 2006, for example, math and reading test scores dropped significantly, showing that only 32% of high-school students were proficient in math.[10]

What about high-school graduation rates? Surely the rate of graduations is reflective of school quality and efficiency, which No Child Left Behind was supposed to improve. In 2008, a report sponsored by America's Promise Alliance, which was prepared by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, showed that schools in major cities in the United States had a horrible 52% graduation rate after four years; the national average is 70%, which still isn't good. In areas like Baltimore, with a graduation rate of 34%, Columbus, with a graduation rate of 41%, and Detroit, with an awful rate of 25%, their suburbs are at 80% or higher.[11] These urban areas were supposed to be the ones No Child Left Behind would target.

Roughly 1.2 million students drop out every year, according to researchers.[12] Thus, any test-score improvement is itself only representative of those who are still in school. It's similar to a charlatan like Pat Robertson bragging that the divorce rate is down and not bothering to mention that marriage rates are down even further.

Most important, perhaps, is the fact that the No Child Left Behind Act is completely unconstitutional. There's nothing in the Constitution that permits the federal government getting involved in education. This fact was ignored by President George W. Bush, who, in November 2005, infamously referred to the US Constitution as "just a goddamned piece of paper."[13] In February 2005, a bipartisan panel of state lawmakers concluded that the program is unconstitutional since it trumps state and local control over schools.[14] They claim that "This assertion of federal authority into an area historically reserved to the states has had the effect of curtailing additional state innovations and undermining many that had occurred during the past three decades."

Some claim that, since participation in NCLB is optional at the state level, it's not coercive at the federal level. This excuse is ridiculous, and the same federal/state policies apply with highway funds if BAC isn't lowered to .08, for instance. Opting out doesn't mean they don't get taxed (via their citizens) in proportion to the money not spent by the feds on education, so it's really not much of an option. Tax money is extracted out of the state, and then states are given the "option" to participate in the program in order to get some of that money back. It's passive-aggressive coercion. Optional or not, the federal government has no authority to be involved in education.

Many people who support the program applaud the vast sums of money that are sunk into it. Is money the answer? The author of Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol, thinks so. According to him, "grossly insufficient funding" is to blame for poor results in Chicago. Kozol claims that the children's "problems stem from short funding," and that the "low funding of the schools that they attend confirm the wisdom" that more funding is necessary. Kozol does, however, concede that "it is obvious that urban schools have other problems in addition to their insufficient funding."

In 1984, a federal judge in Missouri ordered that the property tax in Kansas City be doubled, the income tax be increased, and other state funds be redirected in order to give Kansas City schools an extra $2 billion ($4.1 billion in 2008). In 1991, Kansas City was spending $9,412 per student, compared with $2,854 to $5,956 in the suburbs. Kansas City schools were furnished with brand new textbooks, state of the art computers, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, television studios, and even funding for taxi drivers to drive children to school if there were any problems with bus fare! According to those who believe money is the answer, this would be the place to see success. Did the test scores of students increase? Not even a little.[15]

In the year 2009, in Washington, DC, funding was about $15,000 per student, and the student-to-teacher ratio was 15.2 to 1, yet the students' achievement rate was one of the nation's lowest. Perhaps the most ironic part is that parents are sending their children to other districts, which receive as little as $7,500 per student annually, in order to escape the highly-funded school district![16] That flatly undercuts the entire argument of those who claim that more funding of public schools is the answer to most, if not all, problems.

In conclusion, it's apparent that government intervention in schools is an utter failure. The notions that standardized tests will fix the problem and that pouring money into a government project will churn out superior results are likewise absurd.

Educators pouring money into a failed school are like farmers pouring expensive fertilizer onto a concrete sidewalk: the only thing you're going to promote the growth of are undesirable weeds. Even left-liberal Juan Williams, in his book Enough, acknowledged that the poor, namely the poor black, "in defiance of black politicians, have told pollsters they favored vouchers, charter schools and magnet schools to give them some chance to get their children out of those bad public schools."

Why would anyone be opposed to this? Teaching to the test, increasing government centralization, and forcing teachers to turn into robots by mandating nearly everything they teach has been shown to be a failure.

Schools operate as a taxpayer-funded monopoly, answering unconstitutionally to the federal government and the teacher's union. Further, since it is a monopoly run by a coercive monopoly, it has all the attendant problems, i.e., it has no profit-loss mechanism. This monopoly is also subject to the whims of politicians, who can mandate that something either be taught or not taught as dictated by their beliefs. These beliefs are thus foisted upon the kids, who are required by law to study the given material or else.

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[1] Technically, it's a little more complicated than that. The bureaucrats generally subdivide students into groups such as Blacks, Native Americans, Whites, Students with Special Needs, etc.

If just one of those groups fails to meet standards, the whole school will "fail." So a more accurate title for the program would be "No Group Left Behind."

[1] "LBJ Announces 88 New Projects," Lodi News-Sentential, 18 Jan. 1965.

[2] Chomsky, Noam. Understanding Power. The New Press, 2002.

[3] "Bush, GOP Senators Lick Wounds but Say They're Not Too Conservative", Chicago Tribune, 25 May 2001.

[4] "On Way to Passage, Bush's Education Plan Gets a Makeover", The New York Times, 4 May 2001.

[5] George Will, "Getting Past 'No Child,'" The Washington Post, 9 Dec. 2007.

[6] Williams, Walter, "Patterns of Black Excellence," Creators Syndicate Inc., 2008.

[7] Buchanan, Pat, "Even in Massachusetts, Trouble for the Party of Government," The Union Leader, 19 Jan. 2010.

[8] Murray, Charles, "The Age of Educational Romanticism," The New Criterion, May 2008.

[9] Kohn, Alfie, "NCLB: 'Too Destructive to Salvage,'" USA Today, 31 May 2007.

[10] Walsh, James, "Math, Reading Test Scores Drop; Only 32% of High Schoolers Were Proficient in Math on Test Designed to Match Stiffer Learning Standard," Star Tribune, 15 Nov. 2006.

[11] Here are some other city/suburb splits:

New York — 47.4 percent vs. 82.9 percent

Cleveland — 42.2 percent vs. 78.1 percent

Philadelphia — 49.2 percent vs. 82.4 percent

Chicago — 55.7 percent vs. 84.1 percent

Los Angeles — 57.1 percent vs. 77.9 percent

Atlanta — 46.1 percent vs. 61.8 percent

[12] Grey, Berry, "High-School Drop Out Rate in Major US Cities at Nearly 50 Percent," World Socialist, 3 April 2008.

[13] Thompson, Doug, "Bush — Constitution 'Just a Goddamned Piece of Paper,'" Op Ed News, 11 Dec. 2005.

[14] Dillon, Sam, "Bipartisan Study Assails No Child Left Behind Act," The New York Times, 23 Feb. 2005

[15] "Desegregation's Broken Promises,", 10 Nov. 2003.

[16] Williams, Walter, "Dumbest Generation Getting Dumber," Creators Syndicate Inc., 2009.

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