The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) is one of the largest education reforms in US history, and promised to reinvigorate the nation’s public school systems. However, the program was based on a flawed model, and has remained underfunded since its enactment. It is clear now that the program is failing, and US students and teachers are feeling the weight of the problems. This is particularly true in low-income areas, where sheer geography handicaps students’ chances at academic success.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush was running in part on an education ticket, and though he expressed faith in our public school system, he warned that “too many children in America are segregated by low expectations, illiteracy, and self-doubt.” Bush was right despite the 120 billion dollars a year spent on the thirty-nine federal agencies created by The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The NCLBA was to be the most controversial and sweeping education reform since then. So controversial that the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) had opposed it from the very beginning. Before being signed into law on January 8, 2002, it would come under intense political scrutiny. So much that the Department of Education (DoE) hired private publicists, like Ketchum Inc., in order to promote laws of reform for the bill.
The NCLBA has its roots in Texas, when then Governor Bush created a relationship of accountability between students, teachers, and administrators of the public school system. The framework for this system of accountability was based on a program that appeared to be successful in Houston--a brainchild of then superintendent of Houston public schools, Rod Paige. However, according to a 2006 Time magazine article, “Dropout Nation,” Houston was a main offender in using “leaver codes,” which are used to describe students who do not attend school but are not officially listed as dropouts. Paige had fudged the numbers, undermining his own program; a program that served as a model for national education reform. Not to mention, as US secretary of education under President Bush from 2001-2005, Paige had a great deal of influence on the the federal legislation as a main writer of the bill. When he joined the Bush administration, Paige had no experience in federal government; today he is a private consultant paid by academic institutions to deal with the legacy of problems from his very own bill (“Dropout”).
As it stands, the NCLBA requires that states create and maintain their own systems of accountability that would yield acceptable test scores. Schools have three years to get their test scores up to federal standards. After the second year of falling short of these standards, students and faculty are identified as “in need of improvement.” After that, the penalties are more drastic, and the federal government retains the right to acquire control. The repercussions are scaled according to how long the scores have been below the federal standard, but can lead up to termination for administrators and teachers, and the entire reconstruction of whole school districts. The school systems have until 2013 to bring all students up to the federal standard.
Several reforms have changed many aspects of the NCLBA, mostly in response to public out cry. These reforms have lessoned the states burden by weakening the standards. This is done in such a way that states are further unclear of expectations. In 2004, only 42 percent of teachers felt they understood federal expectations, and only 52 percent of them felt that they were prepared or qualified to implement these changes in a way that would improve test scores (Sunderman and Oldfield). However, even if teachers were prepared to handle the scope of the NCLBA, throughout the Bush administration it was never fully funded--when Bush left office, the AFT reports that the US education budget had been cut by 15.4 billion dollars. On November 5, 2009, in a speech at a Madison Wisconsin middle school highlighting his administration’s new talking points on education reform, President Barrack Obama promised full funding for the legislation for the first time since its 2002 enactment. The president also admitted that "it's time to stop just talking about education reform and start actually doing it. It's time to make education America's national mission.” The American people are likely not holding their breath; education seems to be an afterthought these days.
And this sentiment is penetrating US culture as young Americans have lost faith in the public school system. In fact, according to Matt Maurer in his 2006 article exploring the inadequacies of modern curricula, 40 percent of graduating seniors feel that they were not properly trained for college courses or entry level positions, and that there are clearly gaps in what they learned in high school and what is expected of them in the real world. The result of these feelings reflects a daunting statistic: one in three high school students do not graduate (“Dropout”). Despite 88 percent having the grades to graduate, dropouts felt that college was out of their reach and high school was a waste of time (“Dropout”).
In twenty-three states, students are allowed to withdraw from compulsory school as young as sixteen year old (“Dropout”). Other states, like Indiana, are passing laws in which the minimum age a student can withdraw is eighteen. In Indiana, industry towns that had relied on one factory to support their entire population are experiencing up to 50 percent drop out rates (“Dropout”). When these factories close and student’s parents are with out jobs, health care, and, in turn, medicine, children often have to go to work. For this reason, in 2005, Indiana state legislators increased the age students could drop out.
According to the National Center of Educational Statistics, students from lower income families are six times more likely to leave school without a diploma and very few go on to get an equivalent. Furthermore, children of high school dropouts are 50 percent more likely to follow suit (“Dropout”). Students from these communities have statistically-charged handicaps. However, Title 1 funding, a major provision of the NCLBA that is the sole measure that provides support for disadvantaged students like those who live below the poverty line, have to live up to the same standards as schools from affluent school districts where students statistically do well on standardized tests. This is out of touch; school systems in low-income areas require a long-term investment of resources in order to succeed. This is where are children are being left behind, still.
For years the national graduation rate has been between 85 and 95 percent. The DoE uses the US census as a means of determining dropout rates. The reality is that the census does not account for transients, military service, prisoners or teen pregnancies (“Dropout”). As Anya Kamenetz points out in her book Generation Debt, our country’s graduation rate peaked in 1970 at only 77 percent, and today the dropout rate of the United States is a whopping 30 percent, like it or not.
To complicate things, minority students, who consistently score low on standardized achievement tests, will account for 60 percent of the US’s projected 16 percent increase of college-age citizens by 2015. Considering that minorities are statistically from lower-income communities, and that the public school systems in these areas are being failed by the federal government, the gap in socioeconomic privilege is about to widen. For American workers, competing against the flexibility and diversity of the entire world for jobs, the shift in gears towards the nation’s workforce focusing on becoming knowledge workers is farcical at this point. It does not seem possible if there is not an academic foundation provided to young American students, and the country’s school systems as they stand are not doing that. How prepared will the next generation’s workforce actually be when competing in a global job market? Not very well indeed.