As would be expected with any controversial program, to date there is little consensus regarding the success of the "No Child Left Behind Act" of 2001. Despite the fact that this was meant to be an education reform act, there are many political undertones associated with this program. The division does not only fall along political lines. Schools that have proven to meet the standards of high achievement are clearly in a better position than those schools that struggle, such as inner city schools, rural schools, and schools for whatever reason are difficult to staff.
When enacted and signed into law in January, 2002 by President George W. Bush, this program gave the federal government the power to increase the standards of accountability for states, school districts, and individual schools. Primary and secondary schools were given guidelines with the goal of improving students’ academic performance. If these standards are not met, schools ultimately face the loss of government funding. This Act brought a greater emphasis on reading, and the requirements of extensive testing of students.
The goals established were clearly meant to be in the best interests of students. Not only were standards established to promote a high proficiency level for students, it also called for teachers to be highly qualified. They must have a Bachelor’s Degree, state certification and licensing, and have subject matter expertise. Unfortunately, one of the many criticisms of the program is that teachers are now motivated only to teach what is necessary for their students to pass the required tests and in turn, curriculums are drastically narrowed. As a result, there may be less focus on teaching critical thinking skills.
Despite the name of the Act, there are still many children left behind. Many schools in less affluent and rural areas struggle to meet the target standards. It is often difficult to staff such schools and they have fewer resources to rely upon. Further, when federal funding is restricted, failing and at-risk schools suffer even more. The Act’s goal of closing the achievement gap is then undermined by its own regulations.
The limited local control is also a problem. Mandating across the board standards for all schools throughout the United States does not take into account community issues which are best addressed by local government. Just as the political climate varies from state to state, entities within states vary as well. Because local government officials live within the community, have knowledge of the dynamics of the community, and presumably care about those within their community, it does not make sense to withdraw all local power and limit input.
The restrictive nature of this Act is ultimately its biggest problem. There is an inherent lack of flexibility, depending upon cut and dry standards. Research has shown that students perform very differently on standardized tests, even if their grades are very similar. Some students simply test better than others. Many students experience a great deal of apprehension and pressure when they have to take these high-stakes exams. Because teachers’ performance and ultimately their jobs are based on the outcome of these tests, it is only natural that they stress the importance of these tests to their students.
There are many other standards of accountability which should be considered when measuring the success of a school. High rates of attendance and a high graduation percentage is one indication of a successful school, as is a low dropout rate. Schools should also be given credit for the percentage of students taking Advanced Placement courses and the number of students who go on to pursue a college education. Schools which systematically show improvement from year to year on test scores should be acknowledged for their progress.
On paper, the perceived goals of the "No Child Left Behind Act" are very reasonable, and those who drafted it no doubt had altruistic intentions. Two years after it was enacted, The House Education & Workforce Committee praised its successes, indicating that this Act ensured that school districts were educating every child. Their reports showed that test scores had risen, disadvantaged students were given greater opportunities, and parents and teachers had more power to hold the schools accountable for the quality of education being offered. However, the Department of Education did not agree, and in 2006 announced rule changes providing more flexibility of the standards. Congress is also considering lessening the restrictions on states and allowing more local involvement.
The 2001 "No Child Left Behind Act" has had limited successes. More than anything, it has been the target of criticisms on numerous levels. No one would oppose the original goals of improving the public school system in the United States and the likelihood for students’ success in the future. However, the restrictive measures giving all of the power to the federal government had inherent problems. The restrictive standardized testing mandated by the Act reinforced and exacerbated the problems. However, the most restrictive portion of this program is the undue pressure placed on schools, teachers, and students to get the grades necessary to assure federal funding. The best teachers are the ones that can express their individuality and utilize their creativity.
In the end, this Act clearly has the potential to improve the American education system. To accomplish this goal, there must be revisions and continued evaluation. Ultimately, educating this country’s youth should be the highest priority, so all options should be left open, all successes should be celebrated, and all failures acknowledged. If the government and education system can take lessons from their past successes and failures, it is likely that the necessary changes can be made to the program to bring about the best possible outcome, that being educational excellence for all students.
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