The No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law in 2001 by President Bush. The bill was signed into law three days after he took office and was supposed to be “the cornerstone of his administration” (Department of Education, 2004), and ushered in a series of reforms for public education in the United States. The Act came about as the result of a push for greater teacher accountability, on the principle that this would spur improvements in classroom performance. There were several problems with the Act from the outset, including an emphasis on testing, which then caused teachers to teach to the test, rather than actually teaching the students material that they needed to learn. Ultimately, No Child Left Behind was viewed almost universally as a failure, and was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act in December, 2015.

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This paper will outline the background of NCLB, and what its impacts were on the American education system. A background will be presented, including a description of the law and some of its aspects. Then, the responses to the law will be outlined. There were critiques from teachers and parents, as well as from educational scholars It seemed that the law really only had a few beneficiaries, and these were generally the only people who already had advantages; the disadvantages tended to suffer from the provisions in this law. Ultimately, too many complaints from too many people saw Congress overhaul, gut and eventually replace many of the key elements of No Child Left Behind, to the point where today it has simply moved past the law.


The stated intent of the law was to “close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind” (, 2002). The problem that was identified to justify the law was a gap in education quality between schools around the country. The gap existed between different states, and it existed within states in different areas. No Child Left Behind was intended to close that gap.

The main mechanism by which the law worked was a set of standards. Schools were expected to teach to these standards, and students would be examined on them. The concept was that by instilling a common set of standards, it would be easier to hold schools and teachers accountable for underperformance on the part of their students, as common measures would allow for greater comparability of the results.

The law was passed in a sense to create an economic incentive, to use the forces of the market (not really the market, the government, but working with basically a market mechanism). When a school does well, or a state does well, there is rewards. Poor performance brings about a penalty. The challenge for administrators would be to ensure that their school did not receive any sort of penalty, as such a penalty to make it difficult for the school to improve in the future.


Almost immediately, the law drew criticism. Ultimately, it was not written by educators and the results reflected in that. Among the main criticisms are that it changed the way students were tested, what material they were taught. The way that money was spent in the education system changed, too, and there was increasing focus on the tests (GreatSchools, 2016). Schools that did not deliver results would see their funding cut, which only made it harder for them to achieve results. Teachers needed to be retrained, which added considerable expense as well. Ultimately, the law proved to be a major disruption to the education system. The new vision for the classroom was one of teaching to the test, rather than learning, and surveys indicated “over half of teachers considered leaving the profession” (Walker, 2015).

IN particular, the funding formulas that went along with the law were called into question A common critique was that schools were not receiving enough funding. Further, parents could move their children to “better” schools, so the law’s influence was that all the money and good students could end up at a few top schools while the other schools had only lesser students, and no funding. There is no mechanism in that structure to actually improve the standards at such schools.

Other provisions were equally untenable. One of the provisions in the law was that teachers needed to be “highly qualified,” which meant that they needed to meet certain educational standards and pass a curriculum test (GreatSchools, 2016. The concept of the law was that many students, especially in poor areas, are taught by underqualified teachers. The problem, of course, is that there are not enough qualified teachers. In many states, they have been unable to hire enough qualified teachers. If they had more money, they could offer more and thereby attract more candidates, but in many cases this was not possible and states failed to meet this provision; the implementation time frames for the provision were unrealistic.

A further outcome is that 30% of classroom time was being dedicated to the tests, because the stakes were so high for those tests. As a result, other learning was pushed to the wayside, including learning about things like art, music, and physical education, but even core subjects were focused too intensely on the testable material. Over the life of NCLB “the presence of history, art, music and physical education has diminished” (Walker, 2015).

Even the reforms that have occurred to undo NCLB have struggled to fully rid the education system of its impacts. This is part in political. As Bornfreund (2015) notes, “there is the big question of whether a more bipartisan bill could actually pass the GOP-controlled Senate.” One of the issues Bornfreund raised was that NCLB did not bring enough accountability for the earlier grades. In essence, when testing began in the 3rd grade, it was that teacher who was held accountable, but of course if students are too far behind entering the third grade, then it will be difficult for that teacher to catch them up. Bornfreund (2015) notes “the new law established the Reading First programs,” noting that in the effort to undo NCLB, these programs were cut, but they were actually useful in addressing early childhood reading.

There was also the issue of the parents. The parents, who were taught under different systems, generally did not favor No Child Left Behind. The biggest praise for the law comes from the parents of children in poorly-performing schools, as the law allowed them to transfer their students to better-performing schools. This is an issue for the poorly-performing schools, as surely as exodus of its best students does it no favors in trying to improve performance. But for some parents, this was seen as a major benefit. In general, though “No Child Left Behind has been praised, but mostly criticized” (Randolph & Younger, 2015).

The Act had promised greater flexibility for schools, though increasingly they did not see it that way. States instead plowed money into improving test scores, and that is precisely what happened. Test scores generally did improve, but the students were learning less of the material outside of the tests. That said, the money that was made available to schools in some areas to make improvements. For example, Randolph and Younger (2012) point out that “many teachers now have multiple computers in the classroom and have been trained on how to use the new technology.” In other areas, however, there are complaints that “Congress has not given them the funds to provide the necessary services demanded by the Act,” which in turn has forced schools to take money out of other programs. In many cases, anything not directly tied to the test scores was viewed as non-essential and subject to cuts.

Other critiques noted that English language learners underperform on standardized tests Some are new arrivals to the country, others are trying to catch up. In many cases, these are bright students and the tests do not accurately reflect either their capabilities or the job that the school has done with them — they might perform quite well even a year later. In poor areas, teachers face more challenges such as hungry students with disruptive home lives. In such situations, more resources are needed, but when these students underperform they are given fewer resources instead. In socioeconomic terms, NCLB basically ended up rewarding the rich and punishing the poor, basically doing nothing to actually improve the situation at the weakest schools.

Further critiques of NCLB argue that it “treats education like an assembly line” (Randolph & Younger, 2012), when it should treat children as individuals, with education tailored to their needs. The law most feel, began with a fairly reasonable understanding of the problems in the public school system, but did nothing to improve the situation. In many cases, NCLB made the situation worse. Overall, the law was viewed as a failure, and there was popular push from teachers and parents alike to end it.

Conclusions about NCLB

There are a few different conclusions that can be drawn from this law. The first is that the law was unsuccessful not because it failed to understand the problems in the education system but because it failed to address them. Instead, the funding formulas created motivation for schools to teach to the test, and the formulas tended to reward the schools least likely to actually need the money. This, combined with allowing good students to change schools, basically condemned the weakest schools to be weak forever.

Test scores did improve. the problem is that the overall quality of education provided to children did not improve. They scored better because the tests were the main focus in the classroom, and there was simply too much emphasis on those tests. The result is that students were not receiving a well-rounded education. At many schools, all programs not related to the tests were deemed as non-essential and cut. Teacher morale was weekend and many considered quitting the profession as a result of the law, something that had never happened before.

Thus, No Child Left Behind was viewed as a failure. It has been systematically dismantled, so aggressively that even good programs that were part of it have been eliminated. Further laws have attempted to basically undo NCLB and to start over with reforming the public education system. There remain a lot of issues, however, and these issues persist today, despite efforts on the part of lawmakers to fix many of the problems.

If there are some students who benefit from No Child Left Behind and some of its funding programs, that is entirely possible, but the consensus seems to be that the incentives in the program mainly created negative motivations for people, such that they were motivated to avoid negative consequences, and there was really no motivation for excellence. This would prove to be the law’s undoing, in that it was unable to actually solve the problems it set out to solve, and was of course no successful at improving education or morale in the schools.


Bornfreund, L. & Williams, C. (2015). Moving young learners forward. New America . Retrieved April 19, 2016 from

Department of Education (2004). Executive summary. U.S. Department of Education Retrieved April 19, 2016 from (2002). Public Law 107-110. Retrieved April 19, 2016 from (2016). What the No Child Left Behind law means for your child. Great Retrieved April 19, 2016 from

Randolph, K. & Younger, D. (2012). Is No Child Left Behind for all students? Retrieved April 19, 2016 from

Walker, T. (2015). Five issues that will decide if the era of No Child Left Behind is really over. NEA Today. Retrieved April 19, 2016 from