No Child Left Behind? Critics Contend the Federal Education Plan Lacks Funding and Fairness

When President George W. Bush signed into law a plan to change the way kids learn in this country, he did it in a place where he hoped to make the most dramatic improvements – public school.

Sitting behind an old wooden desk in an Ohio high school in January 2002, Bush signed his “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) act before a cheering, foot-stomping crowd.

For More on NCLB …
For more background on "No Child Left Behind
," check out our Sept. 2001 feature
The Bush Education Plan:
What Does It Mean for Your Child?
NCLB has been hailed as landmark reform. After years of discontent over how American children are educated, here is a law that expands the federal government’s role in education, orders states to hold schools accountable for student success, and sets goals everyone can agree on:

• Close the student achievement gap.

• Make public schools accountable.

• Set standards of excellence for every child.

• Put a qualified teacher in every classroom.

Bush’s continued confidence in the new law was evident in June when he announced that all 50 states, as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, had plans in place to hold their schools accountable for reaching the goals of No Child Left Behind.

But today, educators, school administrators and many parents are voicing concerns about this ambitious federal plan. Criticism is rising over insufficient funding and federally required testing to determine whether schools and teachers are doing a good job.

Initially, the law was applauded as a triumph of bipartisanship: The Republican President and veteran Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy worked together to create this historic education reform. But earlier this year, a disillusioned Kennedy issued a statement deriding the plan for its “tin cup budget.”

NCLB “may provide the resources to test our children, but not enough to teach them,” he said of the law’s annual standardized testing requirements and a perceived lack of federal funds to support the resources needed to adequately prepare children for those tests.

U.S. Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, put it even more bluntly: “The success of NCLB is at a crossroads. At this point, with the president’s budget, we are starting down the wrong road; and we are, most assuredly, leaving millions of children behind.”

At the same time, NCLB supporters are equally passionate in their defense of the plan. Here is a look at some of the main criticisms of the law and how supporters respond to those complaints:

Strapped for Cash
The numbers speak for themselves. Bush’s 2003 budget provided funding for NCLB that fell $8 billion short of authorized levels. For 2004, the president proposed an allocation $11 billion below target. He also requested a 40 percent cut in federal funds for after-school programs (a proposal rejected in late June by two congressional committees) and an 11 percent cut in the Safe and Drug-Free Schools programs. Both are components of NCLB and both are lauded for helping to improve students’ academic success.

To make matters worse, critics note, states around the country face enormous budget shortfalls this year and are making cuts wherever they can. More than a third are moving to cut millions – and, in some cases, billions – of dollars from public school budgets.

The state of Texas is typical of many. “Districts across the state have been in a cost-cutting mode for a number of years,” says Karen Soehnge of the Texas Association of School Administrators. “When you continue that cutting over a lengthy period of time, you’re cutting to the bone. We’re concerned because we have increasing expectations and diminishing resources – two irreconcilable forces.”

Bush, however, praises the federal government for “investing more money in elementary and secondary education than at any other time in American history.” Next year’s budget raises education funding to $53.1 billion, an increase of nearly $11 billion since he took office, he says. He notes that funding for Title 1 education programs for the country’s most disadvantaged students is up 33 percent to $11.6 billion, while spending for reading programs has increased to more than $1 billion.

But in a recent ceremony lauding NCLB progress, the president also cautioned that “pouring money into systems that do not teach and refuse to change will not help our children.”

“We’re spending more money on schools, but the change is that we’re now asking for results,” he said. “And those results must be proven, and those results must be measured every single year.”

Key Concerns with the Law
Beyond the hand-wringing about funding, it is Bush’s insistence on yearly testing to hold schools accountable that bothers critics the most. Many educators believe NCLB is rife with flaws that undermine the very goals it sets out to achieve. They point to the following key provisions of the law:

Testing ­– By the 2005-2006 school year, all students in grades 3 to 8 must take a statewide test every year in reading and math, and once during grades 10 to 12. The idea is to annually measure how kids are faring in these core academic subjects – and how well their schools are teaching them.

But critics question NCLB’s reliance on single tests in individual subjects to determine if a school district is adequately doing its job.

“What’s wrong is the high stakes test – the one single test that carries enormous consequences,” says Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. “The gauge of student progress in most states is reduced to reading and math test scores.”

Indeed, across the country, teachers are complaining about how much instructional time is taken up with teaching test-taking skills. “We are cutting back on the amount of time spent at recess, on physical education, while we have the most obese generation of children that we’ve ever had,” notes Pat Bailey, a fifth-grade teacher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Gina Parola, a second-grade teacher in Los Angeles, agrees. “I don’t do any science or arts with my students until May, after the tests are done. Things that make learning enjoyable are being lost for the sake of achieving a number.”

The tests affect educators from the top down. If school districts don’t perform well, administrators are the first ones put on notice. “For many principals, a big part of their annual review is looking at those test scores. If the scores aren’t good enough, they may be out of a job,” explains Paul Young, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

But testing to measure student progress has support among vocal advocates of higher academic standards.

“It’s certainly not too much to test students once a year to see if they are meeting expectations,” says Mike Cohen, president of Achieve, an independent organization that helps states raise academic standards. Teachers should assess their students throughout the year, he says, and base their instruction on those assessments.

-FAMILY: Verdana">Other NCLB supporters echo Cohen. “NCLB has given us the motivation to do better,” says Tony Knight, director of curriculum at the Oak Park Unified School District in California. Testing, he says, is essential to measure how kids are doing, to determine what changes are needed for improvement.

-FAMILY: Verdana">Cohen also notes that the testing mandated by NCLB is “high stakes” for schools, but not for individual students. “And, surely, it’s a good thing for schools to be held accountable for the progress their students are making toward specific goals,” he says.

-FAMILY: Verdana">However, some states do use testing results to determine whether children move on to the next grade level. In Massachusetts, for example, high school students who do not pass the state’s 10th-grade MCAS exams, even during re-takes in their senior year, cannot receive a high school diploma.

Goals for Progress – Just how schools are held accountable is another contested aspect of No Child Left Behind. Under the law, each state must set “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) targets – the minimum level of improvement that must be achieved in schools each year. The goal is to get all students to achieve at a “proficient” level by the 2013-2014 school year.

-FAMILY: Verdana">But critics complain that the AYP is based solely on students’ performance on the annual standardized tests in math and reading. That, they say, puts too much emphasis on the tests, and not enough on how to improve teaching.

-FAMILY: Verdana">“Believing you can improve schooling with more tests is like believing you can make yourself grow taller by measuring your height,” says Schaeffer of FairTest.

-FAMILY: Verdana">Many teachers – and parents – believe that a variety of assessments is a more effective way to evaluate schools. “What about increased attendance, parent involvement, staff retention, plenty of after-school activities?” asks Elizabeth Barker, a mom in Hingham, Mass.

Achieve’s Cohen notes that the intent of the law is to zero in on student achievement as a way of making schools accountable. It would be wrong, he says, to water those figures down with other data.

Another problem is that – as NCLB currently stands – most schools nationwide will be labeled “in need of improvement” at some point over the next few years. Why? Because even schools that are already considered high-performing will have to continue to show improvement.

NCLB supporters argue that having a system like AYP means that states have to make public exactly how their schools are doing, and that’s important. “Parents need to know the truth about their child’s school,” says Buzz Bartlett, president of the nonprofit Council on Basic Education, a leading advocate for the development of high academic standards in K-12 education. “We need to be able to measure progress. What the government is doing embodies all the concepts of total quality management that you see in a good business. First, you collect the information, and then you make changes.”

Bartlett also points out that states are allowed to decide what kind of assessment tools they use to measure school and student progress. And those tools don’t have to be solely standardized tests, he says.

One negative by-product of the reliance on testing, however, is that several states have actually begun lowering their testing standards in recent months – perhaps out of fear of being labeled “failing.”

In Texas, the state Board of Education voted to reduce the number of questions that third-graders must answer correctly to pass their reading test, from 24 to 20 (out of 36). Officials in Michigan have begun lowering the percentage of students who must pass statewide tests to certify a school as making adequate progress. Colorado has overhauled its grading system, so that students formerly labeled “partially proficient” are now labeled “proficient.”

Both sides of the NCLB debate agree that this development is regrettable.

Highly Qualified Teachers – By school year 2005-2006, teachers and other staff must be able to demonstrate that they are “highly qualified,” as defined by each individual state. Unfortunately, this key requirement of NCLB may have been largely abandoned. According to a recent report by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), 42 percent of the states haven’t defined what “highly qualified” means in their state, and the Department of Education is not requiring states to submit these definitions.

Furthermore, beginning in the 2002-2003 school year, schools were required to notify parents if a teacher who is not highly qualified has been teaching their child for more than 20 consecutive days. But a recent study shows this hasn’t happened. Research conducted for ACORN by the American Institute for Social Justice found that only 38 percent of states surveyed included the required teacher quality information in newly mandated report cards about their public schools.

Switching to a Different School – Schools that receive Title 1 funds and do not show yearly progress among all their subgroups of students for two consecutive years will be identified as “in need of improvement.” If your child is in such a school, you have the right to transfer him or her to another public school within the district, which must also pay the transportation costs.

While school choice seems like a great idea, Boston Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Payzant warns parents not to draw hasty conclusions. “It’s important that parents know how to interpret the information they are getting, since it’s possible that a school doesn’t meet the target in just one category, but overall is doing fine,” he says.

Critics also worry that this part of the law will result in schools in the poorest areas essentially being abandoned.

ss=MsoBodyText>After three years, if a school is still designated as low performing, parents continue to have the option for choice, but now the school must also pay for supplemental services, such as tutoring, outside of school. Again, Payzant advises parents to be clear about what they think their child needs and to look at the range of programs available. Talk with the principal of your child’s school, he says, to determine exactly what’s going on at the school and how your child can access the extra academic services.

ss=MsoBodyText>In the fourth year “corrective action” begins. This might mean that your child’s school will be closed and turned into a charter school with an entirely new staff.

ss=MsoBodyText>Reporting Results to Parents – One NCLB requirement viewed by many as a positive move for parents is that state education departments must issue a “report card” every year with state test results and other important information about their public schools.

ss=MsoBodyText>School districts must report on overall district data and issue a report card for every school. States must then report on the academic progress of all their schools and make the information easily accessible to parents. The reports will show how a school is doing overall, as well as how its different subgroups of students are faring on standardized tests.

ss=MsoBodyText>These reports also allow parents to see how their child’s school ranks among other schools, both in the local district and in the state.

ss=MsoBodyText>“Parents can find out what testing is being used, the scores and the state standards, as well as graduation rates and access to specific courses,” explains Wendy Puriefoy, president of Public Education Network (PEN), a national organization working to improve public schools. “This is good news for parents.”

ss=MsoBodyText>Assessing NCLB in Your Child’s School
No Child Left Behind
tries to address the important issue that too many children across the country are not getting the quality education they need. But a year and a half into this new law, educators are advocating for changes.

ss=MsoBodyText>“Like all new pieces of legislation, it requires adjustments,” says Denise Cardinal, spokesperson for the National Education Association, which represents teachers across the country. Cardinal and other educators urge parents, teachers and legislators to work together to make those adjustments soon, to ensure that the law is improving the nation’s schools.

Regardless of whether you agree with critics or supporters of this landmark reform, here are some ways you can keep an eye on the progress of NCLB in your child’s school and get involved as a parent:

• Pay attention to the newly required school report cards, and ask questions about successes and deficiencies in your child’s school. Attend the meetings the school offers to explain report cards and test scores.

• Provide feedback to the district on how parent-friendly the report cards are and what additional information (such as class size, course availability, type and extent of parent involvement) would be helpful.

• Join other parents to organize forums where you can ask questions about the school’s information and share ideas for improvement.

• Use the report card and other data to organize parents and the community to pressure elected officials for adequate resources to meet annual goals.

• Find out if your child’s school receives Title 1 funds. If so, the school is required to have a written parent-involvement policy, and parents need to be fully included in the process of developing the policy, not just convened to OK it.

Change of the magnitude of NCLB is often slow and difficult. But, as always, parent involvement is crucial to the success of each child, and ultimately each school. Become a part of the action!


An Action Guide for Community and Parent Leaders, by Public Education Network. It describes what NCLB offers to parents, and suggests ways of organizing and asking questions. Call 202-628-7460 or visit

FairTest: The National Center for Fair & Open Testing – Helps parents organize and seek changes relevant to NCLB. Check out the organization’s Assessment Reform Network.

Give Kids Good – Provides information about NCLB.

The National Education  – Offers several brochures to help parents understand and manage their role in the different aspects of NCLB.

Parent Leadership – Offers a lot of education information for parents, including “No Child Left Behind – What’s In It For Parents?”

U.S. Department of Education  – Includes a simple overview of the legislation, as well as the answers to frequently asked questions 

For More on NCLB …

For more background on the federal “No Child Left Behind” plan to reinvent public education in
America, check out our September 2001 feature The Bush Education Plan: What Does It Mean for Your Child?

Judy Molland is the education editor for United Parenting Publications.