Five minute primer: No Child Left Behind
President Barack Obama shakes hands with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan while speaking at an event on reform of the No Child Left Behind Act in September 2011.
February 9th, 2012
11:15 AM ET

Five minute primer: No Child Left Behind

by Donna Krache, CNN

Update: President Obama announced today that ten states have qualified for waivers from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandates.  In exchange for this flexibility, the states will implement accountability, raise standards and improve teacher effectiveness.  The NCLB primer that follows was first published last month, on the tenth anniversary of the law's signing.

(CNN) Ten years ago, on January 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law.  Since then, the law has been the topic of numerous discussions among lawmakers, educators and parents. Want to know more about it?  If you’ve got five minutes, you can learn the basics of NCLB here. Read on.


NCLB, as it came to be called, enjoyed bipartisan support in its early days. Although it is often associated with President George W. Bush, one of its sponsors was the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts. The bill was actually an update of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which was aimed at supporting disadvantaged students in low-income area schools. ESEA was part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. With Bush’s signature in 2002, NCLB became the most sweeping federal legislation on education, with far-reaching impact in the nation’s schools.


There are many provisions to NCLB, including sections on safe and drug-free schools and parental involvement, but its intention is to drive and measure student achievement.  At the heart of the law is a mandate for accountability and measured student outcomes, derived primarily from state-administered standardized tests that are given annually in grades 3 through 8 in math and reading.

Under NCLB, all schools are striving toward “100 percent proficiency” in math and reading by the 2013-2014 school year. That means that all students must perform to satisfaction on state tests in these subject areas by spring 2014.  Since this provision went into effect, states have set their own benchmarks toward achieving the 100% goal. The yearly benchmarks are called Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP.

Schools are held accountable for making AYP. If a school fails to make AYP for two consecutive years it is labeled as “Needs Improvement” and school officials must formulate and implement a “turnaround plan” for that school. Schools that remain on the Needs Improvement list for additional years must offer other public school choices and/or tutoring options to their students and parents. Five years on the Needs Improvement list could cause the school to face restructuring, including terminating staff and administration and turning the school over to a private operator.  

Pros and cons

Supporters of NCLB applaud the law’s intent and its attempt to bring accountability into the classroom. There are also those who say that NCLB has resulted in movement toward closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their peers.

Many NCLB opponents are focused primarily on what many call “high-stakes testing.” They argue that the testing mandated by NCLB turns classrooms into test preparation centers and takes time away from subjects that aren’t tested, like social studies and science. They also question the expense of test administration and the feasibility of attaining the 100% proficiency goal. And there are some who say that last year’s school cheating scandals are a byproduct of an education system that leans too heavily on test scores.

Where it stands now

More schools were listed as failing last year than in any previous year since the passage of NCLB. Almost half (48%) of U.S.schools did not make AYP in 2011, according to the Center on Education Policy.

In August 2011, the Obama Administration announced that states can apply for waivers from provisions of NCLB if they meet other federal mandates.   Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said that the goal of the waivers is to provide flexibility for states while maintaining accountability and high expectations.

Critics argue that the issuance of waivers is an end-around move to circumvent a law passed by Congress, and some question its constitutionality. Others question whether the waivers amount to additional federal control of education.

In spite of a bipartisan Senate committee attempt to address changes to the law, Congress did not vote on NCLB in 2011.

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soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. Texian

    The disgusting part of the whole No Child Left Behind Act is that it included a virtual amnesty for illegal laien children. They are now worked not by ICE but by ORR that contracts with "shelters" and foster homes to house illegal akien children as refugees for resettlement in America and not criminals to be deported. Since the act was put in place the influx of minors from sout odf the border has increased dramatically.

    February 13, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  2. WEDuncan

    The notion that all students should get a high school education is out of step with current realities in the working world. For several years, about 60% of the jobs in the country have been skills based rather than knowledge based. Vocational and Technical school staffs should include instructors of math, language, and social sciences, along with the skills based courses commonly taught in them. Other schools should transform into college prep schools, so that students are prepared for the rigors of university courses. What would the role of the federal and state governments be in such a situation?

    February 9, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  3. Rstlne

    The best that I can say about NCLB is that it is the product of really good intentions. As a practical matter, NCLB is a complete and utter failure. Probably over 30% of students have test anxiety serious enough to skew any testing results, and the students themselves have no incentive to actually try their best on the mandatory tests. This law has cost good teachers their jobs, and encouraged all teachers to teach just to the test. Little is done nowadays to teach children practical skills, like how to think and reason out a problem on their own. NCLB should be completely scrapped; we should instead allow all schools to do what they did prior to NCLB – whatever they believe to be best for their own students. The government should only get involved in school systems who are obviously failing to graduate a reasonable percentage of their students.

    February 9, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • ryan

      I Think they should figure out at what point to get involved

      February 9, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • Oakspar77777

      Never. The reality is that schools are a function of the community and need to produce students who are in line with that goal and the reality of human intellegence.

      The simple truth is that not all humans are equal in intellegence, ability, or motivation. Schools exist to open oppertunities for those with the intellegence, ability, and motivation to do well.

      NCLB leaves behind every student who is held back because legislation forces teachers to care about getting the maybe-passes across the passing mark while ignoring the will-passes need for deeper ciriculum. It also leaves behind those who teacher know can and could never pass the mark due to inate ability, as teachers pray those students are few enough to not ruin their numbers.

      Teachers need to be freed up to take students as far as the students want to go and students need to be challenged to compete for those oppertunities they desire. An "everyone wins" school system leaves a lot of loosers lost in a competetive world.

      February 10, 2012 at 11:55 am |