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Action Alert

Transforming America’s Education

No Child Left Behind.

A Matter of Justice and Our Nation’s Future

According to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the United States has a 25 percent school dropout rate. “Where you see those kinds of numbers,” he said during a speech at Princeton University on April 21, 2011, “we are perpetuating poverty and social failure. I look at this as the civil rights challenge of our decade.”Four out of every five schools in America this year is predicted to receive failing grades under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Senator Michael Bennet points out in an editorial for the Bangor Daily News, “We [United States] are one of only three countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that invests more money in the most advantaged schools and less money in our least advantaged schools.” Even more alarming, the NCLB requirement that 100 percent of students reach proficiency by 2014 has been predicted at a zero percent chance of occurring—a complete failure. While touted as a bipartisan success during the Bush Administration nine years ago, Congress is now struggling to gain a consensus on a reauthorization bill.

In light of the United States placing 17th worldwide (tied with Poland and Iceland) in the latest education rankings by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Obama Administration is seeking to overhaul NCLB, including changing the name of the bill itself.

The changes proposed by President Obama are sweeping and include the following:

  • The goal of student proficiency in reading and math by 2014 would change to a standard of “college and career readiness” for students by 2020.
  • In addition to reading and math, schools could include student performance in other subjects as part of overall measurements of progress.
  • "Our children only get one shot at an education. They cannot wait any longer for reform.”
    Evaluations of schools would shift from being overtly punitive and to offering more rewards.
  • More federal funding would be switched from formula-based allocations to competitive grants.
  • Schools that miss certain targets would not be required by federal government to provide students with tutoring or with the option to transfer.

Secretary Duncan wrote in a June 12, 2011, editorial in Politico, “The purpose of our administration’s plan is not to give the states and districts a reprieve from accountability but, rather, to unleash energy for reform at the local level even as Congress rewrites the law.” He went on to state that NCLB needs to be more flexible to allow for locally tailored solutions to educate at-risk students and close the achievement gap.

Who does No Child Left Behind effect most?

NCLB is applicable only to Title I schools, schools in which 35 percent of the children attending are from low-income families. The determination of low-income families is based on the percentage of families that qualify for free and reduced price lunches. Students must reach state-determined proficiency levels by taking state administered tests in English/language arts and mathematics. If a school fails meet the adequate yearly progress (AYP) levels (determined by the state) the consequences escalate over a five-year period.

NCLB has impacted rural and urban communities differently. Rural communities cite the harsh penalties of replacing staff and the lack of school choice, even if given the option. Many rural communities have a difficult time attracting teachers, and NCLB may force these districts to let good teachers go because of the schools’ performances on standardized tests.

Low-income urban schools have similar concerns in regard to keeping and retaining teachers. In addition, many urban schools have a diverse student body, many of whom do not speak English as a first language. Furthermore, school choice and charter schools have not brought about the hoped-for positive results in some urban areas. Toledo, Ohio, is a prime example, where only one of 30 charter schools rated excellent in 2010 and nine others were in academic emergency.

NCLB has also disproportionately affected disabled children. Reports indicate that the dropout rates of disabled children have risen since NCLB has gone into effect, and the pressure to prepare students to make the AYP goal has seen children with special needs removed from the classroom. The U.S. Department of Education allows states to exempt 1 percent of students with the most severe disabilities. In the early years of NCLB, waivers were given to some states to exceed the 1 percent cap, but now waivers are much harder to come by.

Legislative Proposals

In March 2010, President Obama, through the U.S. Department of Education, released “A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Act.” In the report, the president listed five priorities:

President Obama’s plan includes continuing the Race to the Top Incentives, which were started as a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The Race to the Top program rewards states that implement effective education reform programs with grant money.

The president has set the goal of his Blueprint for Reform: Every student should graduate from high school ready for college and a career, regardless of his or her income, race, ethnic or language background, or disability status. Being college and career ready involves states working with public universities to upgrade their existing standards in language arts and mathematics, or states can work with other states to create common standards.

Several members of Congress are offering “enhancements” for NCLB. Senator Kay Hagan has introduced the School Turnaround and Rewards Act (STAR), S. 959, as an addition to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The STAR act will target the lowest performing 5 percent of schools, providing funds to implement one of five different intervention models that range in severity from replacing the principal, strengthening the staff and introducing research based instructional programs to closing the school entirely. Senator Hagan seeks to rectify NCLB’s perceived incremental reform measures that allowed states to choose the least intensive option.

The All-STAR Act of 2011 has been introduced in the House, H.R. 1525, and Senate, S. 809. This bill, under NCLB reform, would allow the Secretary of Education to give grants to successful public charter schools to expand and serve more students.

Secretary Duncan applauds the changes to NCLB that allow school to be rewarded for the positives not penalized for the negatives, noting, “This law [NCLB] has created a thousand ways for schools to fail and very few to help them succeed.”

Instead of adopting a single NCLB bill, the House of Representatives is considering four pieces of legislation. The House will vote on H.R. 1891, “Setting New Priorities in Education Spending Act” and H.R. 2218, “Empowering Parents Through Quality Charter Schools Act.” H.R. 1891 would repeal 40 sections of the NCLB act, including dropout prevention, numerous literacy initiatives, grants for safe-drug free schools, domestic violence education, and Women’s Educational Equity Act of 2001. The “Empowering Parents Through Quality Charter Schools Act” will replace the current charter school program with grants going to states to support new charter school openings, financing facilities nearly equal to the amount going to traditional public schools. The two remaining bills being drafted deal with teacher quality and accountability and are expected out this fall.

Developing common standards among states has all ready begun, with 42 states adopting the Common Core State Standards in 2010. These standards were a states-led initiative in conjunction with the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). They were developed by teachers, school administrators and experts.

The National Education Association (NEA) has laid out principles it would like to see addressed in the new NCLB bill. The first is that NCLB should promote innovation and high expectations and encourage development of 21st century skills in public schools. The second is that NCLB should end the obsession with high-stakes, poor-quality tests by developing high-quality assessment systems that provide multiple ways for students to show what they have learned. The NEA feels NCLB should help provide great educators and school leaders for every student and that NCLB should promote public education as a shared responsibility of parents, communities, educators and policymakers. Finally the fifth principal is that NCLB should provide increased funding to all states and school districts to meet the demand for globally competitive education of U.S. students.

Thomas S. Dee of the University of Virginia and Brian Jacob of the University of Michigan issued a report in September 2010 titled “The Impact of No Child Left Behind on Students, Teachers, and Schools,” which points out successes of the program, such as increasing fourth and eighth graders’ math achievement and increasing the dollars spent per pupil while reaffirming other misgivings by acknowledging the bias involved when states are given the ability to adjust the tests and teachers tailor lessons toward state tested content.

President Obama met twice with both branches of Congress to discuss reauthorization of NCLB, but neither put forward a comprehensive reform bill. Secretary Duncan warns that if Congress continues to stall on this issue, his administration is prepared to move forward.

“If Congress does not complete work on reauthorization soon, we will be prepared with a process that will enable schools to move ahead with reform in the fall. Our children only get one shot at an education. They cannot wait any longer for reform.”


  • Call your representatives and tell them our children’s and nation’s future is in the balance. Tell them to reauthorize NCLB to ensure a quality education for every child. Call the congressional switchboard at 202. 224.3121 or visit www.senate.gov and www.house.gov and say you want your representatives’ support for H.R. 1525, S. 809, S. 959.
  • Read “Creating Equitable Schools with Teachers at the Forefront” by Peggy McIntosh.
  • Read Washington Post article “In NEA, Obama Faces an Enthusiasm Gap.”
  • Join the NEAs in Washington, D.C., on July 30 for “Save Our Schools Rally.” Visit educationvotes.nea.org/sosmarch for more information.
  • Read The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2008, Resolution 3162, “The Right of All to Quality Education” (p. 316).
Last Updated: 04/12/2014

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