A decade of No Child. Did the law do any good or did it inspire cheating?

George Bush used education reform models in his home state of Texas to create No Child Left Behind. (AP Images)

George Bush used education reform models in his home state of Texas to create No Child Left Behind. (AP Images)

This month marks the 10-year anniversary of No Child Left Behind, the sweeping federal education law that President George Bush envisioned as his legacy.

Bush signed No Child into law on Jan. 8, 2002, explaining that “the fundamental principle of this bill is that every child can learn, we expect every child to learn, and you must show us whether or not every child is learning.”

The landmark law mandated annual testing in reading and mathematics with the ultimate goal of all students reaching a “proficient” level by the 2013-14 school year. Schools had to reach escalating target scores to prove “adequate yearly progress” or risk a failing label.

Districts had to sort out scores by students’ race, ethnicity and other characteristics, so schools could no longer mask low-performing students. Thus began a frenzy of standardized testing that turned many of America’s classrooms into drill-and-kill laboratories in which anything not on the test fell to the wayside.

Schools that reported jumps in their annual test scores earned headlines, parties and visits from beaming governors. Those that did not suffered failing labels and falling morale.

Over the past decade, there has been a steady increase in percentage of schools each year that did not make AYP. In the latest report, 2010-11, roughly half of the nation’s schools failed to reach their goals. But because states could set their own baseline for proficiency, there are wide variations from one state to the next in how well schools are meeting their targets.

“The percentage of schools not making AYP varies from a low of 11 percent in Wisconsin to a high of 90 percent in Florida, ” said Brian Stecher, associate director, RAND Education, and co-author, “How Federal Education Policy Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act Can Support States in School Improvement.”

The pressure on schools to meet testing targets fueled a cheating scandal in Atlanta that is the nation’s largest ever, implicating nearly 200 educators and costing taxpayers millions in investigatory and legal fees.  The state recently completed its review on cheating in Dougherty County, finding blatant examples there of score tampering.

And there is evidence that the cheating that besmirched Atlanta’s reputation also occurred elsewhere in the country.

Indeed, some of the impressive results in Houston schools — the so-called Texas miracle — on which Bush modeled No Child turned out later to be an illusion, in part because schools dramatically undercounted their dropouts.

Because the anniversary is looming, I am getting lots of statements on the law and its impact, most offering a mixed review of its effectiveness. I listened Tuesday to a panel by RAND Corporation education experts. I will write about the panel later this week, but the consensus was that the law was effective in directing attention to previously ignored students, but that it was too proscriptive and overly reliant on multiple choice testing that narrowed instruction.

But one group that sees little benefit from No Child is FairTest, which has issued a report maintaining the controversial law “failed badly both in terms of its own goals and more broadly” and led to a decade of  “educational stagnation.”

Among the report’s contentions:

- NCLB failed to significantly increase average academic performance or to significantly narrow achievement gaps, as measured by NAEP. U.S. students made greater gains before NCLB became law than after it was implemented.

- NCLB severely damaged educational quality and equity by narrowing the curriculum in many schools and focusing attention on the limited skills standardized tests measure. These negative effects fell most heavily on classrooms serving low-income and minority children.

- So-called “reforms” to NCLB fail to address many of the law’s fundamental problems and, in some cases, may intensify them. Flawed proposals include Obama Administration waivers and the Senate Education Committee’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization bill

“NCLB undermined many promising reform efforts because of its reliance on one-size-fits-all testing, labeling and sanctioning schools,” explained FairTest’s Lisa Guisbond, the new report’s lead author. “A decade’s worth of solid evidence documents the failure of NCLB and similar high-stakes testing schemes. Successful programs in the U.S. and other nations demonstrate better ways to improve schools. Yet, policymakers still cling to the discredited NCLB model.”

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

78 comments Add your comment

Get Real

January 4th, 2012
4:50 am

The US Constitution says absolutely nothing about education, which means, by the 10th amendment that education is handled by the states, not the federal government. Close the US Dept of Education and get the feds out of education and you will see an immediate improvement in our schools.

Beverly Fraud

January 4th, 2012
5:19 am

Saying No Child Left Behind did good is the equivalent of saying Bernie Madoff did good, because he “brought attention” to financial issues.

Shame on US

January 4th, 2012
5:20 am

Since entering the education arena in 1997, I have watched the steady downfall of education in the state of GA and throughout the United States. Every aspect of NCLB that could have been successful has been swept away by greed (newfound SES organizations that are a rip off for student tutoring and others that previously would not give a child a chance to walk through their doors if the parent could not afford the “assessment” fees), testing irregularities, “new math”, crooked superintendents (local and statewide), and top heavy school system leaders. Children have suffered, the economy has suffered, we all have suffered from the misguided, underfunded, and mistakes of NCLB. Everyone forgot the basics and left children behind, put them on the back burner, and took advantage of what should have made a difference to those who were struggling and have continued to struggle for the past 10 years. GHSGT, CRCT, “new Math”, lack of technology, bad administration, hypocrisy; you name it, if it hasn’t worked in educating children for the future, then NCLB created it.

Two Cents

January 4th, 2012
5:34 am

NCLB was a big joke – a tremendous big joke.


January 4th, 2012
5:36 am

@Get Real – you’re right, the 10th Amendment leaves Education to the states – but there’s nothing that says Congress can’t give states an incentive to do what they want us to do. Georgia is free at any time to reject Federal education policy and leave the money in Washington, but do you ever see that actually happening?


January 4th, 2012
5:37 am

Thanks for the notice, Maureen. Everyone start prepping your sackcloth and ashes for Sunday.

Atlanta Mom

January 4th, 2012
5:44 am

” law was effective in directing attention to previously ignored students”
That is certainly true. And it is a good thing. But, that may be the only good thing.

drew (former teacher)

January 4th, 2012
6:08 am

“Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” -George W Bush, Florence, S.C., Jan. 11, 2000.

And now, nearly 10 years after the implementation of NCLB, we’re again asking that maddening question: Is our children learning?

Well…is they?

Check The Data

January 4th, 2012
6:28 am

A decade of data will provide the answers for the items listed
(I’m sure someone will provide links to some of the areas listed below.)

1) Graduation Rates
2) College Admissions Rates
3) Reading Scores/Math Scores
4) Percentage of College Students Entering Teaching Profession
5) Percentage of Students Receiving Education in Art & Music
6) Percentage of Students Receiving the Option of Vocational Education
7) Percentage of Good Educators & Administrators who Left Profession

Dr. John Trotter

January 4th, 2012
6:28 am

The Federal Government needs to get out of the education business. The No Child Left Behind Act was a huge disaster, leaving the public schools in a worse mess than they were ever in. NCLB was built on erroneous assumptions and was doomed from the very beginning. The States are responsible for public education.


January 4th, 2012
6:48 am

NCLB did make some systems take notice that they had more than one type of child who should be educated.

I liken NCLB, however, to the idea that, by 2014, EVERY person in the US will not need food stamps, welfare, housing support, Medicaid. While many could be pushed off the rolls, there will still be folks that truly need assistance for a period of time.


January 4th, 2012
6:59 am

Dubya the Dumb was the worst, most ignorant president this nation has ever seen, so why on Earth do we continue with this insanity. Instead of teaching our children skills they need to succeed in a global economy, we are lowering the bar to make sure no child is left behind. It’s kind of like saying to a field of runners ready to do a marathon, that, instead of a punishing, challenging race to determine the best, we’re going to cut the marathon to a one mile trot, so everyone can clear the finish line. We are teaching to the lowest common denominator, so we will end up with mediocre students. It is sad.


January 4th, 2012
7:14 am

Wasn’t this whole thing Ted Kennedy’s idea in the late 90’s and passed when Bush took office in the first term? How did Bush envision this as his legacy when he was still Governor of Texas at the time?


January 4th, 2012
7:22 am

I have a grandchild in a Quest program. Her being there had nothing to do with No Child.

Byte Me

January 4th, 2012
7:37 am

NCLB was indeed “effective in directing attention to previously ignored students”. However it did this at the expense of students who didn’t need the help, but are now forced — by lack of resources at the state and local levels — to endure the same “educational” instruction to pass a multiple-choice test, because the administration of those schools accept a failure rate at their own peril.

So by leaving no child behind, the ones who could get ahead before are slowed to allow the others to catch up.

We need to restructure our schools, so that each child takes the test at the beginning of the school year to assess their abilities and then organize the students into classes based on their abilities so that the ones who are behind have a chance to catch up with special instruction aimed at their capabilities. THEN measure their performance at the end of the year to see if they’ve made the necessary gains and dock the schools that don’t perform (not the teachers, make this the principal’s problem to get enough remedial teachers to work at his/her school).

mothers concerned

January 4th, 2012
7:41 am

No Good at all if you child struggles in school from a learning disability some teachers will want to help the students that stand in the spot light.


January 4th, 2012
7:43 am

NCLB ran public schools into the ground and exposed them as the adult-centered organizations they are. Yes, there are some brilliant exceptions, but not many.


January 4th, 2012
7:49 am

DeborahinAthens, I will take no child left behind over dem Ideas like busing and ebonics. Obo flunked out of Occidental college and can’t run a lemonade stand. Until deadbeat parents start getting jailed for their truent/failing children, education will not improve. The likes of DebinAthens bash Bush but sit quietly on the sidelines while lib run schools like Atlanta cheat their poor students out of an education.


January 4th, 2012
7:51 am

Byte Me hits the nail on the head. NCLB is terrible and it’s precursor, “inclusion,” are what got us into the mess we’re in now. The words No Child Gets Ahead sum up this miserable failure.


January 4th, 2012
8:07 am

If we could let go of our national obsession with test scores and rankings, then certain features of NCLB are worthwhile. We also need to stop “Race to the Top” funding, which is just a gimmick based on the paranoia of test scores, yet again.


January 4th, 2012
8:10 am

Hmm…one of your recent blogs touted the Fins and their education system and stated that the US schools systems are run by the States. Now you question the Fed’s and no child left behind..Hmmm…I’m confused…but wait, the Fed’s do control the school system by this law and then by funding…do as I say or we with hold money we took from you…No child left behind was the best example of how the Federal Government can destroy anything it touches and should be put back in its place. As for Education, once again, I say it is time to put responsibility back on parents. We need to quit paying women to have children – once again a Federal Government promo – make them and their male counterpart responsible and let the schools do what they are suppose to do – teach!!


January 4th, 2012
8:10 am

Shame at 5:20, that’s an accurate assessment (in my opinion). District schools are about maintaining strict control of funding and political power.

Honeyfern at 7:43, your comment: “NCLB ran public schools into the ground and exposed them as the adult-centered organizations they are. It appears NCLB facilitated the exposure of the “adult centered organization”.

The only thing that the federal government does well is spend money and they can’t do that efficiently. Let them keep their federal funding dollars and let local communities run their own schools.

Inman Park Boy

January 4th, 2012
8:12 am

In a word, no. It seems that whenever the Feds get involved in anything other than national defense they muck it up.

HS Public Teacher

January 4th, 2012
8:28 am

Of COURSE it did some good….

1. Many of Bush’s friends got very weathly off of it. Think of the many education consultants from Texas that went around the Country to “help” the school systems to deal with the NCLB crap. Think of the additional federal hires that were Bush’s friends to implement/regulate/etc. NCLB.

2. Bush and the republicans got tons of political mileage out of it. How many times did we hear them say about how much they “helped” our children with NCLB?

3. It helped with the republican agenda of transferring wealth from the middle class to the most weathly. The taxes collected (mostly from the middle class) was used to go to the wealthy friends of Bush (see items above).

4. It helped individual States line the pockets of their political friends. Each State had to add to their list of hires to implement this NCLB. So, of course the politicans were able to repay their campaign contributors by hiring them or their nephew, etc.

So, did NCLB help? Yes. But did it help the children/students? Not at all.

Misty Fyed

January 4th, 2012
8:32 am

Mankind has built pyramids, walked on the moon, built bridges, build dams, built skyscrapers, harnessed the energy of an atom among other great achievements. Why do our education “experts” continue to fail? It’s not like we haven’t been teaching kids for thousands of years. How hard is it to focus on what works? It’s time to bring in business oriented leadership into our schools systems and get rid of the “education experts”. People who will focus on techniques and curriculums that work not just make you feel good about yourself or are politically correct.

Let’s face it. Success in school is based on the child’s culture. Not all culture is equal. Some value education. Some don’t. Those that value education will get good grades. Those who don’t…won’t. The greatest teacher in the world will never reach someone who doesn’t value education. That value can be encouraged by good teachers but how often can a teacher overcome what the parents teach at home?

Let’s provide opportunity for all but let’s celebrate those who are excelling. Let’s allow the achievers to achieve and give them the credit they are due. No Government legislation is going to fix the problems with those that do not achieve in school until it addresses the problems of the parents.

Just A Teacher

January 4th, 2012
8:35 am

NCLB is one of the worst laws passed in my lifetime. Instead of focusing on the intelligent motivated students, it panders to the lowest achieving students. I maintain that if you want to improve public education you should spend more time challenging those students who show an interest and aptitude for learning instead of trying to level the playing field by ignoring them in favor of children who care nothing about their education.

Ron Burgundy

January 4th, 2012
8:36 am

Until the govt and society in general starts putting pressure on parents to put an emphasis on education then its all for not. Here is my No Child Left Behind Idea:

*If a child does not want to learn put him in a class where he can develop a trade
*If a child does not want to develop a trade put him on a litter clean up crew
*If a child is not wanting to be on a litter cleanup crew take away their smart phone and cable TV as well as the parents.

Dr NO / Mr Sunshine

January 4th, 2012
8:40 am


January 4th, 2012
7:14 am

You are correct, Sir. NCLB, RTTT or whatever you want to call it, its just recycled babblings. The issue with non-performing students is non-performing parents.

I urge the “powers that be” to cut the educational budget and use those funds to construct more prisons because they will be filled to max capacity.



January 4th, 2012
8:47 am


January 4th, 2012
8:52 am

Why don’t we attach a ball and chain to the fastest sprinter in the Olympics so others can “catch-up” to him. Thats basically the premise of NCLB and it ain’t workin’! I do not mean to go off and leave under-achieving and disadvantaged students. However, all (or most, hopefully) folks on this blog remember their school days. There are some folks that are just plain (and hey, I know this hurts some libs) smarter than others. I am not talking about circumstances, poverty, etc. But the delusion that all kids can learn on the same level is a pretty tough one to prove… and I come from a family of educators…….

Dekalbite@Mike in Athens

January 4th, 2012
8:54 am

” How did Bush envision this as his legacy when he was still Governor of Texas at the time?”

Because Texas governor Bush proposed and the legislature in Texas passed an almost identical program. The Texas program conceived by Bush (with a little help from his friends) was the foundation NCLB was modeled on.

Ted Kennedy was happy to go along with Bush since he never met an educational program he didn’t want to spend money on.


January 4th, 2012
9:04 am

No Child Left Behind is just another of the social experiments in education that have been forced upon us since the 60’s. The goal of all these experiments is to pull up minority test scores so that they equal those of white children. For whatever the reason, it looks like this is not ever going to happen. Based on how all our students do in relation to the rest of the world, it looks like these experiments do more harm than good. However, because of political correctnes, they will continue regardless of how harmful they become. Hey, is this a great country or what!!!!!!!!!

Beverly Fraud

January 4th, 2012
9:16 am

It brought rigor to the rigorousness of revamping the rigorousness of the rigor.

Atlanta Media Guy

January 4th, 2012
9:22 am

I love it how everyone complains about NCLB, but there is not one solution to the problem but one, close the Fed DOE and let the states do it. Period! Politicians on the left and the right got involved because they were going to bring more dollars to their constituents and districts and use it to get re-elected another big government boondoggle. Kennedy and Bush set out together to get this done, but also let’s not forget that NCLB was being brought through Congress just after 9/11. I think the focus was not on writing a good piece of legislation but for Congress to appear like they were working things out with a bipartisan solution. Things were not as polarized then as they are now. Exit question, if we can agree that the Feds have no business in educating our kids, why did we give them the authority to tell us how to handle OUR healthcare decisions?

Ayn Rant

January 4th, 2012
9:27 am

NCLB is a silly proposition for a start: children do not have equal intellectual ability, and what children shouldn’t fall “behind” is undefined. The implementation plan is plainly stupid: a joint federal/state/local program supporting multiple meddling bureaucracies, and retaining, rather than booting, the incompetent state/local agencies that messed up education is the first place.

And, NCLB does not even attempt to address the most significant problem in American primary education: the lack of comprehensive, supported curricula that define what should be taught. How can there be meaningful discussions of “students falling behind”, “teacher merit”, “failing schools” is there is no definition of what should be taught and learned?

The federal government should stay out of education until it has something to offer.


January 4th, 2012
9:43 am

If we ‘fix’ education a lot of consultants and other money grubbing “reformers’ will be out of work.

They will never let that happen! So they will keep convincing you the system needs reform whether it does or not.

Don't Tread

January 4th, 2012
9:54 am

So long as people keep having babies because it’s fashionable to be a baby mama/daddy or to keep getting more EITC money, no legislation or amount of money thrown at schools will solve the problem. Education starts with parents long before the schools are involved, and these baby mamas and daddies just plop the kid in front of the TV to get them out of their hair.

You can’t fix stupid. Ron White got it right.

bootney farnsworth

January 4th, 2012
10:06 am

did any good?

hell, we’re lucky it didn’t make things even worse than it has

bootney farnsworth

January 4th, 2012
10:10 am

between the crap like this, the unrepentant cronyism, nepotisim, and outright disregard for education by professional education “administrators”

its getting harder and harder to convince myself I should stay. seems pimping would be more honorable and socially respected. damn sure would pay better

Beverly Fraud

January 4th, 2012
10:25 am

Should we praise No Child Left Behind for bringing attention to kids heretofore under served? How despicable a question is it? Best answered by how despicable it ISN’T.

And admittedly, it isn’t QUITE as despicable as asking if we should “praise” Osama bin Laden for bring attention to airport safety.

Again, it’s not THAT despicable, but it’s PLENTY despicable in its own right.


January 4th, 2012
10:26 am

thanks for the link teacher & mom…NCLB, knew it was wrong-headed from the start….and to paraphrase Diane Ravitch “Race to the Top? The top is already occupied by the children of the 1%.”

Beverly Fraud

January 4th, 2012
10:31 am

Does No Child Left Behind deserve to be praised for “bringing attention” to previously under served students?

Do you want to know how despicable a question that is? Well’ that’s best defined by how despicable it ISN’T.

It isn’t QUITE as despicable as asking if Osama bin Laden deserves “praise” for bringing attention to the subject of air safety in this country.

No it’s not quite THAT despicable.

Beverly Fraud

January 4th, 2012
10:33 am

Seems some posts are disappearing into the ether this morning.

Good Mother

January 4th, 2012
10:47 am

Yes, it did good.
It made school systems accountable.

Old timer

January 4th, 2012
10:53 am

I do think, the graduation rate among poor stude ts may have improved. In the beginning I think the INTENT of the law was to try to educate more children…who were being left behind. As it turns out it has illustrat

Old timer

January 4th, 2012
10:55 am

Illustrated the importance of parents. Byteme, your idea of pre and post testing is great. Clayton County s holos did this in the 70s and early 80s……..it worked!

Dekalb taxpayer

January 4th, 2012
11:07 am

Beverly Fraud, you always make me laugh; please don’t ever stop posting.

Cobb Math Teacher

January 4th, 2012
11:16 am


You are partially correct but mostly incorrect in the statement Georgia can reject federal monies. We can reject/refuse to accept monies but many of these laws are written so that we cannot reject a good portion of the reforms, in particular the IDEA law and educational portions on the ADA laws. These two laws have then had addendum and additional requirements for the servicing of special needs students through the NCLB law. If Georgia rejected portions of NCLB it would leave it open to lawsuits from special needs students at a federal civil rights level–in case you are wondering, parents very rarely lose these cases and when they win the state/district is sidled with additional mandates which are even more erroneous than the law.

We as a state can reject money but do not forget the interconnectedness drafted into the asinine laws.


January 4th, 2012
11:18 am

Seems to me that the plan was a long-term effort to undermine public schools and bolster the push for privatization and vouchers. By setting the ludicrous goal of all children performing at or above grade level by 2014 and branding schools as failures if they didn’t transform themselves into little Lake Wobegons where all the children are above average, it succeeded at that under-handed hidden agenda. But success at helping schools and students? Not so much. Too many members of Congress got bamboozled by the rhetoric of the bill, and now Congress is incapable of doing much of anything, so….here we are, with meaningful reform more elusive than ever.


January 4th, 2012
12:00 pm

Only one good has come from NCLB – the requirement to publish data from test results based on subgroups rather that only summary data. All other aspects of the law have proven to be detrimental to our students’ education.