What is No Child Left Behind?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was passed in 2001, and it was designed to address increasing concerns about the quality of American education. Since its passage, the law has spurred a great deal of debate, with supporters arguing that it has improved American education and detractors pointing out failings with the act. It was one of the first major pieces of legislation pushed through by the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush.

No Child Left Behind aims to improve the quality of education in the areas of reading and writing.
No Child Left Behind aims to improve the quality of education in the areas of reading and writing.

According to the White House and Department of Education, the law has four pillars. The first is the idea of accountability: a standard must be established for schools to be measured against, and there will be rewards and consequences for improvement and failures, respectively. The second is greater flexibility with funds, by allowing schools to allocate money as needed rather than as dictated by others. The third is “scientifically based research,” a term that shows up a great deal in the text of the NCLB Act, meaning that teachers should use established rather than experimental teaching methods. Fourth, the law is supposed to give parents more choices by allowing them to transfer out of schools that are not performing to standard.

No Child Left Behind places heavy emphasis on improving the quality of education, especially in the area of math.
No Child Left Behind places heavy emphasis on improving the quality of education, especially in the area of math.

No Child Left Behind focuses on the declining state of American education, and puts a heavy emphasis on creating positive results, especially in the areas of math and reading. The people who created the act felt that the existing education system was failing many American students, especially those of low income, and felt that the law would address the gaps of American education by bringing all students up to a basic standard. It is based on a simple reward and punishment system; schools that do well will be given incentives, additional funding, and more support. Schools that are failing are expected to improve their standards quickly so that students have the best chance at a good education possible, or an opportunity to switch to a better school.

Under the act, schools are assessed annually with the assistance of standardized tests, which are supposed to be administered to all students. The school's performance is compared with a state standard, as well as other state schools, and an Adequate Yearly Progress report is issued to the public, which can inspect it to see how well the school is performing. Troubled schools are expected to make visible improvements, and they are offered funding to assist with teacher education, tutoring, and other programs. Schools that demonstrate remarkable progress or are already performing above standards are rewarded for their work.

Nearly all Americans want to see an improvement in education and would like to see all students getting an equal chance at success. Supporters of No Child Left Behind argue that the act is improving American education in a positive and measurable way. Detractors of the act, especially classroom teachers, have pointed out many flaws in the law that have yet to be addressed by the Department of Education. Whether it is effective or not, the act has certainly stimulated discussion about education reform in the US.

Standardized tests are used to help assess schools under No Child Left Behind.
Standardized tests are used to help assess schools under No Child Left Behind.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@cardsfan27 - I am going to have to point out the other side of the argument. Of my three children, two have gone through most of their education after the No Child Left Behind bill. I have seen what I consider a negative change in their learning.

Yes, teachers can be held accountable, but that isn't all that matters. Teachers learn their own methods of teaching. Why should they be constrained by what a standardized test says? I am not so much concerned that my kids learn how to do every type of calculus problem or learn all of the elements. Sure, it's good to know as much as possible, but what I want my kids to know how to do is think and solve problems.

That's what life's all about, and standardized tests don't measure that. Now that teachers can only cover certain topics, there's no time to instill critical thinking skills. Not surprisingly, colleges still expect students to have those skills, so they are behind from the beginning.


@matthewc23 - I personally don't feel like the No Child Left Behind policy is that bad. There have been some pros that have surfaced over the years.

I was still in school for the first couple of years after the bill went into effect. The thing I noticed is that teachers really started trying a lot harder. Before, we had a few people who just sort of let students slide. Now that their raises and evaluations are based on the same scale as everyone else, it's easy to see who is working hard and who isn't.

I don't know the statistics, but I would also guess that test scores have generally increased.


@jcraig - I'm sure once you start to understand the basics that you'll have no problem finding plenty of sources. After reading a No Child Left Behind article in the paper the other day, I have gotten very interested in how successful the bill has been.

I think the general trend is that people feel that it hasn't been successful. Yes, the test scores have improved in some places but not in others. The other argument I have found is that forcing schools to be judged based solely on test scores means that teachers just start teaching to the test. They aren't covering the same material they used to. Now they just drill students on test questions.

In my opinion, this is a horrible way to do things. I don't really know what the alternative would be, though. Schools need to be judged somehow.


I have just been assigned to do a report about the No Child Left Behind law, but I don't really know a whole lot about it, and most of the information that I can find is a little too complicated for me at this stage. I think this article does a good job of summing things up, but what I am really looking for is how the law has affected different groups and whether it has achieved its goal.

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