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

Beverly Fraud

January 4th, 2012
12:08 pm

Get Schooled
Sunday marks a decade of No Child. Did the law do any good?

If you even pose that as a legitimate question; you…just…don’t…get it.


January 4th, 2012
12:55 pm

In hindsight nearly everything George W. Bush touched turned to fecal material. Thanks to that mouth breather we’re left with NCLB, the Patriot Act, a bankrupt government…and Barack Obama.

Archie@Arkham Asylum

January 4th, 2012
1:24 pm

I thought I had seen every “gimmick” the public school systems have tried since I entered first grade in 1961 and then NCLB came along! Some kids just don’t test well and there are a wide range of intellectual abilities in the average school. ( All men are created equal but not all men are born equal!) NCLB actually made the the paperwork worse than it already was. Its “all or nothing” results criteria could result in a school being labeled “Needs Improvement” because one subgroup did not do well on the tests. When the goal of having every student on grade level by 2014 was announced, I could have told them then, that goal was a “pipe dream.” 2014 will be here in two years and it looks like “The gates are down, the lights are flashing, but the train isn’t coming!”

HS Public Teacher

January 4th, 2012
1:30 pm

@MikeinAthens and also @Dr. NO…..

Absolutely the NCLB birth did NOT at all come from Kennedy. This is propaganda that FOX news started to deflect the ‘fecal matter’ away from Bush and republicans. If you do not believe this, you can do a little research to discover that what I say is true….

The birth of NCLB came from a school system in Houston, TX. While Bush was Governor, he thought it was so great he forced it on the State of Texas. Then, while President, he forced it on the nation.

The funny thing is that before Bush forced it on the nation, the school system in Houston was caught in a huge cheating scandal. They were fudging the student scores to show these huge jumps in performance where there was none (think APS). However, that did not stop Bush from forcing it on the nation, anyway.

Ole Guy

January 4th, 2012
4:44 pm

Generations upon generations will be paying for this innane legislation for a long long time.


January 4th, 2012
4:58 pm

Every single one of these initiatives is nothing more than jobs creation and wealth building mechanisms for adults. Watch as test creators, charter school creators and data managers run off with bags of money, while teachers continue to watch their class sizes grow, their support dwindle, discipline cease and their students perform worse.


January 4th, 2012
5:00 pm

I fully expected Obama to shut down NCLB, however, instead he placed it on steroids and renamed it RTTT…. or RT3… And now the pathetic states of America spend endless time, energy and resources ‘competing’ for the reward money for education! Ridiculous!

long time educator

January 4th, 2012
5:42 pm

NCLB did much more harm than good. The only good result I can think of is that we learned to expect more of learning disabled students. I have seen some real gains with these special ed students when their teachers were required to teach and test on grade level.


January 4th, 2012
6:20 pm

Funny how these Republicans start all this sh!t they can’t finish, trashing our kids from the military on down to the public schools – all for a buck.


January 4th, 2012
6:23 pm

I think NCLB worked so well on public education we should implement a similar set of mandates on Congress. We can call it No Taxpayer Left Behind!

Ed Johnson

January 4th, 2012
6:37 pm

It’s worth repeating what Cere said:

“I fully expected Obama to shut down NCLB, however, instead he placed it on steroids and renamed it RTTT…. or RT3… And now the pathetic states of America spend endless time, energy and resources ‘competing’ for the reward money for education! Ridiculous!”

Just wait, Bush’s NCLB will seem like Sunday school compared to the very long-term damage to come from Obama’s “Race to the Top Competition.”

Public HS Teacher

January 4th, 2012
7:02 pm

@Ed Johnson and @Cere….

A major difference between RTTT and NCLB. RTTT is a competition for specific and extra federal funding. A state does not have to do it or even enter the competition if they don’t want to. And, many states have said, “no thanks,”

Unfortunately, the idiot Georgia republicans run after every federal dollar like a dope head on crack.

Ed Johnson

January 4th, 2012
7:17 pm

@Public HS Teacher, exactly. That some states chose to play in Obama’s competition is the reality from which the damage will come. At this point, it doesn’t matter that no state had to engage the stupidity; some did.

John Konop

January 4th, 2012
7:31 pm

Beverly fraud your comments are right on target! Please keep posting comments on this blog, I do enjoy the read. The Madoff comment is a classic!

Oh My!!!

January 4th, 2012
11:40 pm

I think China is happy with our NCLB.

ATL Teacher

January 5th, 2012
12:38 am


January 5th, 2012
7:02 am

@HS Public Teacher….the RttT mandates are being piloted in the districts that signed on….before going whole scale across the state. Whether or not your district signed on is a mute point. We will all be affected in the next five years.

btw: Word on the street is the two districts in my neck of the woods are suffering from “buyer’s remorse.” The paperwork and mandates, plus the fact that no one bothered to tell the teachers about the new evaluation system, has created an unhappy situation. If given the choice again, they would not sign on to RttT. Unfortunately, their lack of foresight will spread the RttT mandates like a unchecked infection throughout the state.

Dr. John Trotter

January 5th, 2012
7:08 am

I agree with you guys about Beverly Fraud. Very funny!


January 5th, 2012
8:18 am

Here is a representation of most posts so far.

“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.”

Really folks?? {Teachers} My experience here in the Great State of Georgia has been that the only students teachers take an interest in are the ones who already know the answers. P.S. I am talking about an all WHITE SCHOOL SYSTEM. The majority of teachers I have met are the “My way or the highway” brand.” I have met few that even consider what it would take for them to connect with a student to help them succeed. You know the kind I’m talking about. A real teacher. I see 25% of the students who EXCEED THE STANDARD score for the CRCT. Now the other 25% to 50% that cannot even meet the standard? The only excuse I can think of for that is a lack of skills by administration and educators. If you spend 180 days with students and they come home with A’s on their report cards and score an 805 on the CRCT, where is the failure? The schools or the parents?

Then we move to the “I was born to be a teacher” teachers. These are my favorite. The ones who show up when the bell rings and leave at the same sound. The ones who teach for the fall, Christmas, Easter breaks and that long unpaid summer layoff as many of you claim it is. Yes it does appear that those are all the right reasons to teach.

Then we get back to all the ignorant Bush haters that wouldn’t know a fact if their lives depended on it. One more time for the slow group. Georgia had the lowest high school graduation rate of any state and even came in last behind the District of Columbia the year NCLB was adopted. So please stop with the “We don’t need the federal government in our business.” You as the connected tax dollar money suckers may not but the children who are unfortunate enough to find themselves at your mercy 180 days a year through no fault of their own do! And let us not forget all those nice elected failures we keep sending to Atlanta. This state mirrors the Blue Bloods of Massachusetts sending the likes of a Ted Kennedy to represent them for decades while nothing changed. “Welcome to tha soouuth suuun.”

[...] Atlanta Journal Constitution: Sunday Marks a decade of No Child. Did the law do any good? [...]

[...] Left Behind federal education law, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Maureen Downey is thinking about its legacy: Because the anniversary is looming, I am getting lots of statements on the law and its impact, [...]

Unemployed English Teacher

January 5th, 2012
1:43 pm

NCLB has caused more harm than good. It took from teachers the ability to make learning fun and forced us to become robots. If a teacher’s scores aren’t “high” enough, they run the risk of being laid off. Hence, those teachers with tenure get the higher scoring kids and new non-tenured teachers get the kids who’s scores are often extreamly low and their motivation is even lower. Often, these are the most behaviorly challengling student with the poorest attendance and refuse to do the work assigned. But to judge me on these kids when I spead hours over and above my “contract” time not to mention money out of my own pocket to help my students and then tell me I’m not an effective teacher is not fair. I can spend hours upon hours tutoring, creating more interactive lessons, and if the kids have no interest to improve their academic performance because they chose not to or because they feel it is easier to just wait until they can quit & do whatever they want, regardless of how much as a teacher you try to encourage them otherwise. Kids aren’t stupid, and they understand that most teachers are doing what they are doing to “keep their jobs” and if a student doesn’t care, they will sabotage in every way possible. Sure rewarding those who score well is great, but really, if a kid scores well on the standardized test, but fails the class, what is the point. Or even if they pass the class with a high grade, but score low on the standardized test… what kind of message does that send? Is the teacher a failure or the test? As a teacher, my students are graded on their work, their effort, and what they turn in. A student can pass a class with an A but score really low on the standardized test. Is this because the teacher didn’t teach them… not at all. Some students don’t perform well on tests and if the bulk of their grade was based on projects or other non-test activities, then the test doesn’t reflect what the student knows and doesn’t know. With the amount of pressure put on kids to score well, is it any wonder that kids just give up?

William Vela

January 5th, 2012
2:33 pm

The Brick & Mortar Schools need to adopt some form of blended education. Which give our kids the choice to “MASTER” the material on their own. With 24/7 On demand online tutoring. americanvirtualschools.com 347 727 9020


January 5th, 2012
3:17 pm

Until we solve society’s problems, we are not going to improve public education. We (31 year educator) have become the scapegoat for society’s problems. It is difficult to teach because of what students bring to the front door.. When students are in a survial mode, nothing else matters!!

Edward Ruffin

January 6th, 2012
6:49 am

The first commenter, Get Real, is absolutely right………………the feds should get out of education and save us all some money and improve the education process. It is a local and state matter.


January 6th, 2012
9:04 am

N.C.L.B…IT is what it WAS INTENDED FOR:N(ow)C(olored)L(earn)B(asic) A(ll)C(olored)T(actic)

Ole Guy

January 7th, 2012
2:14 pm

Cere, you’re right on! As with far too many “government initiatives”, NCLB is/was just another make-work project designed for two purposes: Show the public that SOMETHING is going on at DOE; that DOE is actually earning their keep on the public dole…expand DOE (AND DOE’s budget).

In all reality, NCLB will go down in history as one of the biggest government flops; as I have indicated in a previous comment, generations upon generations will be paying for this failure for a long long time. The educational community, caught between the duty of preparing youth for the future and the requirement of becomming an integral part of this “experiment, has had to all-but ignore quality education so that yet more of the unfunded mandates (for which the gov is so famous) could be addressed.

N. GA Teacher

January 8th, 2012
10:05 pm

We are in a global economy. Our government and private industries agree that our population needs to be well educated to compete globally. Internationally, the best education systems have the following: teachers who are highly respected by administrators and parents, teachers who DO have a place at the table of curriculum development and implementation, teachers whose assessment of student progress is not questioned or changed by administrators looking to make the pass rate artificially higher, administrators who strongly adhere to student standards of academic performance and behavioral deportment, funding for professional development including classes and travel to meetings. In some ways, this was the American public school of the 1960s and is still found in America in the finest private schools. But any vestige of this largely disappeared due to the unmeant consequences of NCLB. NCLB rewarded LOOKING SUCCESSFUL instead of BEING SUCCESSFUL. Hopefully American people in political power will realize that the NCLB emperor had no clothes and will work to restore professionalism to teaching, and integrity and standards to administration.