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What are Some Criticisms of No Child Left Behind?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is a controversial piece of legislation passed in the United States in 2001 to fulfill President George W. Bush's promises of sweeping educational reform. Many Americans agree that the public education system is in need of drastic changes so that American children can be better served. However, some Americans feel that the legislation was not a productive response to the problem. Many classroom teachers, educational activists, and advocates for alternative education have spoken out against NCLB.

One of the most serious criticisms of No Child Left Behind is an issue of funding and unfunded mandates. Critics say that education funding is not a high priority in the United States, with many schools finding their budgets cut repeatedly year after year. This makes it difficult to purchase textbooks, let alone implement policies required. Many teachers or potential teachers who can offer excellent instruction are often reluctant to enter the public school system, which is notorious - especially in urban areas - for having decaying facilities and low compensation for teachers. In especially poor districts, teachers are sometimes forced to purchase classroom supplies out of pocket if they want their students to have access to art supplies, paper, and other educational tools. The strict requirements of NCLB can be a financial drain on schools and districts already strapped for cash.

Many critics of No Child Left Behind also argue strongly against the use of standardized testing to evaluate school progress. Studies have shown that some students simply perform better on standardized tests than others, and that good performance on testing does not necessarily reflect a higher quality education, especially when many classroom teachers feel pressured to “teach to the test” in order to ensure good scores for their school district. Furthermore, some school districts may feel tempted to stack the deck in their favor by excluding students whom they know will perform badly, such as the developmentally disabled and English as a Second Language students. Also, because the tests are set on a state by state basis, individual states have the ability to manipulate the material on them to make test taking easier for their students, making them an invalid measure of progress and abilities. Opponents of NCLB also point out that the standardized tests are thought to have cultural and linguistic biases; including testing recently immigrated non-English speaking students in English.

If a school is determined to be "failing" under the NCLB standards, sanctions are imposed on the school. Many organizations including the American Federation of Teachers believe that these sanctions are not a helpful way to address failing schools, because they are viewed as penalizing, rather than supportive. Some of the sanctions are sensible; for example, when a school is identified as in need of improvement, a school improvement plan is developed as a cooperative effort between parents, teachers, administrators, and the department of education. This improvement plan must clearly address the ways in which the school intends to rectify the situation.

However, many of these sanctions are perceived as punitive, and potentially harmful to the troubled school district. Parents with children in schools undergoing sanctions are allowed to transfer them to another district, and the failing district is required to pay for transportation costs to the new school. Furthermore, while the sanctions include measures like providing extra assistance to students in need of it, this assistance must fall within guidelines which some teachers feel are very narrow, because No Child Left Behind places a heavy emphasis on specific scientific research. While some students may be well-served by the services that schools can offer them under this legislation, many teachers wish to be able to offer a wider range of assistance, even if this help includes non-conventional educational approaches.

Some critics also believe that the requirements for corrective action are too restrictive. These requirements include firing “school staff relevant to the failure,” according to the Department of Education, along with restructuring school management, bringing in educational professionals from outside the school district, and creating a new curriculum. If a school continues to struggle, it may be closed, or reopened under new management, often under an umbrella corporation that offers educational services to various states which need to close and reopen schools under No Child Left Behind sanctions. Some teachers feel that these sanctions ultimately harm the school district and children that they are supposed to be helping. Critics of NCLB point out that this "restructuring," or "reconstitution," is likely to dismantle school community, disrupting the working environment, learning environment, and community connections to the schools.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

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

Discussion Comments
By anon1007386 — On Jun 28, 2022

It's worth noting that No Child Left Behind was repealed in 2016 and replaced by the ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act), which changed all of this.

By anon309798 — On Dec 18, 2012

I think it would be vital to note that the NCLB legislation which was passed in 2001 is merely a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which was passed as part of Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty." Not too many in the liberal left are willing to admit that tiny tidbit.

By anon250871 — On Feb 27, 2012

As public school teacher I am disheartened to realize the large amount of time, resources, effort, etc. for almost nothing. Unfortunately, students do not test for the sake of learning. Spending so much just to 'make the grade' or to save a school from failure is a dog and pony show.

The teaching needs reform, no doubt, but there is too much politics involved here.

By anon246397 — On Feb 09, 2012

Opposition to No Child Left Behind is disingenuous at best. It's basic reading and math at grade level If you aren't able to teach that, you shouldn't be teaching. There's nothing tricky about this. It's been done successfully for centuries (without fancy materials), and now suddenly it is difficult?

Claims of "teaching to the test" is a smokescreen phrase used by the teachers' unions in their turf war over the hiring and firing of teachers. Hello! Now poor teachers can be fired. Yeah!

Also, the cultural sensitivity issue is absurd. This is a standardized, across-the-board requirement for commonality. It is necessary and should be desirable. Without this, we are creating communities which are destructive to national integrity and progress.

By anon123377 — On Nov 01, 2010

it's a tricky situation. on one hand you do need standards, and you have to enforce this somehow, but if you penalize the school monetarily, and with budget cuts, how is that going to help. Teachers also only teach the test. I had a class where we had a previous test version or something and we used it like a textbook for at least two weeks.

By anon103409 — On Aug 12, 2010

Its not only the no child left behind but the WASL (or what ever they changed it to) testing.

The schools are only teaching the material that's on the test! No more history, PE, etc. So we will have fat kids who know nothing about the history of the country?

I think its wrong!

These kids need to be given all the tools they need to survive in the world after graduation because some kids won't be going to college after high school. What do the schools offer these kids? Nothing!

By comfyshoes — On Jul 06, 2010

Sunny27- I agree with you. Standards are required in every business and every job, why is this different? I think that the problem with the schools is not the funding but the unions.

School districts with the highest concentration of unions offer the poorest education. Why? It is far more difficult to fire a unionized teacher.

But if the performance of the school is lacking than the teachers along with the administration should be held accountable. No Child Left Behind does that.

By Sunny27 — On Jul 06, 2010

Excellent article, but I have to say that standard testing offers a standard measurement of what the student has learned. How else are we finding out how our children are doing?

While standardize testing creates a certain level of stress for the student and the teacher, it also identifies failing schools and exemplary ones as well.

Standards have to be set and education is no exception. Schools need accountability and this is the fairest way to accomplish that. A school district in New England fired the entire staff of teachers at a failing high school. This was thought of as controversial, but do the parents of the students that attend that school think so?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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