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NCLB: The Sequel

The new Congress will change the law. You can help decide how.


By Alain Jehlen

“No Child Left Behind”—the powerful federal law with the noble title and the punishing provisions—is due to expire this September. But that won’t be the end of it. NCLB will be reborn. That much is almost certain. What’s not clear is how the new version will be different from the old.

The new Congress includes dozens of freshmen legislators with relatively little understanding of how NCLB really works, along with hundreds of veteran members, many of whom also don’t get it. The law was adopted with strong bipartisan support, so legislators from both parties need to hear from NEA members.  

NCLB is the current incarnation of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. It is by far the biggest federal education program, dedicated from the start to closing the achievement gaps, mostly through the Title I program for low-income children.

Every few years, this law is amended and then renewed. The test-and-punish provisions in today’s version of the law are the result of changes made the last time the law came up for renewal.

With the next revision opportunity approaching, NEA lobbyists are preparing for an epic battle. They are arming themselves with stories from NEA members about what NCLB law looks like in the classroom, and they are continuing to build a wide-ranging alliance called the Forum on Educational Accountability that now includes 97 religious, civil rights, educational, and other organizations. These organizations agree on a variety of changes that must happen if NCLB is to live up to its high-sounding name.

Those changes include using multiple indicators of student achievement instead of NCLB’s overwhelming reliance on one-size-fits-all standardized tests.

Besides these organizations, NEA lobbyists also expect broad, bipartisan support for reform from state education leaders and legislators—people one step closer to the schools than Congress—who perhaps see the problems more clearly. Studies in state after state have shown that almost every public school in the country is doomed eventually to be rated a failure under current provisions.

Despite mounting evidence that the law itself is failing, the current Administration has signaled its intention to defend the status quo. “I talk about No Child Left Behind like Ivory soap: It’s 99.9 percent pure or something,” Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said recently. “There’s not much needed in the way of change.”

But NEA Executive Committee member Becky Pringle says a grassroots effort can overcome resistance at the top.

 “Members of Congress—most of them—do pay attention to their constituents. NEA has members in every congressional district, and if they speak up, we can get Congress to see the light,” she says.
Pringle heads an NEA advisory committee that held hearings and consulted with members across the country in putting together NEA’s agenda of essential changes in NCLB.

“Our changes wouldn’t just eliminate the damage,” Pringle points out. “We want more than that. We want the law to help us carry out the original purpose of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—to close the achievement gaps.”

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The View From Up Close

To members of Congress, NCLB is 1,100 pages of law. To NEA members, it’s individual student lives that are changed when the law collides with the classroom. Here are a few of the many stories NEA has collected from educators in its effort to help Congress understand what’s happening and what needs to change.

Last year we didn’t meet our goals. So mid-year, the state arrived with all kinds of experts going through our classrooms and criticizing our instruction. All grade levels were given strict daily schedules: all math and language in about four hours before lunch. No P.E. No health. No social studies. No arts. No more curricular trips. No music or chants or raps in the morning. 

I am a National Board Certified Teacher. Young children need teaching strategies that meet multiple learning modalities. They need to feel creative. But my voice and other educators’ voices don’t seem to matter anymore. If teachers don’t follow the program, we’re reprimanded, written up, given poor evaluations, told to leave. How can a country claim to respect education when they don’t respect educators?

Laura McCutcheon, Santa Fe Springs, California

“NCLB punishes teachers working in at-risk schools.”

I used to work in an “at-risk,” low socio-economic school. The school had not met AYP for three years. I transferred to a school in a middle class neighborhood that was closer to my house. This school did well on AYP.

My fellow teachers at the at-risk school were highly qualified professionals who also work hard. NCLB punishes teachers working in at-risk schools for things they have no control over. Children cannot learn if they have no health care, food to eat, and stable homes with responsible parents.

Roy Mendez, Henderson, Nevada

 “‘I hate English!’”

In the last four years, because of student scores, our department has had to totally revamp our English II curriculum. We met for many, many hours and plotted out English II every day of the year, down to page numbers. Every teacher is teaching the same material at the same time. We did this to not only make sure we were covering every objective, but also because we were under great pressure from our district administrators to prove we were doing our jobs. In standardizing our curriculum, we had to eliminate most creative student projects, in-depth class discussions, thematic research opportunities, and group work. 

I have extensive training in using music and art in my classroom. I lost almost every opportunity to use these important lesson enhancers. 

Kids went from saying, “Mrs. Meigs’ English class is so cool; she uses music all the time!” to “I hate English II!”

Kimberly Meigs, Tahlequah, Oklahoma

“Finish your workbooks!”

Young children learn best through hands-on, real-life experiences that engage the complete child. Since the inception of NCLB, such practices have been swept aside in favor of rote memorization of facts and figures.

“Stop talking and finish your workbooks!” Hearing this sentence come from my own mouth stopped me in my tracks and sent chills up my spine. Day upon day of workbook page completion is inappropriate for young learners who long to experience, play, act, create, draw, explore, invent, sing, experiment, and yes, read, recite, write, and count. More than heartbreaking, it is unfair and just plain wrong.

Heather Mildon, Anchorage, Alaska

“Our school’s goal was to help only those who may be able to pass.”

I had a third-grade student who was far below grade level. She needed extra help. Our Reading Recovery teacher said that she could not accept her into her class because this student was so far behind, she didn’t have a chance of passing. She said that our school’s goal was to help only those who may be able to pass if given a little help because it is better to have a few students fail badly than to have many fail by just a little. So are we leaving students behind because of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act? I think so.

Vella Trader, Delton, Michigan

“We don’t have time to read books.”

I used to be a great teacher. Last year, I realized I had become something else. I was the proud teacher of English-language learners. I spent 10–12 hours every day planning lessons and designing curriculum that would not only teach them English, but expand their world. My students read Shakespeare and performed their own versions of Romeo and Juliet. My students acted out the courtroom scene from To Kill a Mockingbird and wrote papers about racism. These projects changed their lives. I have had former students come back to me years later and tell me the exact moment they experienced transformation. Jacob Martinez told me, “I knew I could work in the computer industry when we made that Web site. Today I am a project manager for Sony PlayStation.” Gabriela Nunez told me, “I had the confidence to attend college after being in your class. I knew I could read and think about great books.”

My students don’t do any of these things anymore. We prepare for tests and are tested. I have been forced to squander 17 days of class time because of standardized tests. [One] student said, “I heard we were going to read some cool books this year and we’ve only read two.” Tears welled in my eyes as I replied, “We don’t have time to read books in English class.” I’m sorry kids, I’m so sorry. 

Stephanee Jordan, Hampton, Illinois

How the Feds Could Help Close Achievement Gaps

The 27-member committee charged with planning NEA’s efforts to change and improve the No Child Left Behind law started out by listening to members around the country.

 Here’s a short summary of what they heard:

What hurts our ability to educate kids:

  • Measuring school success exclusively by looking at test scores that narrow the curriculum
  • Failure to acknowledge educators’ success when they take on the tough work of helping students who start out below grade level and whose students make significant gains
  • One-size-fits-all formulas that do not recognize the individual needs of students
  • Inflexible “highly qualified” teacher and education support professional provisions that hinder the recruitment and retention of qualified educators

What would help us educate kids better:

  • Measuring school success based on assessment of student learning over time using multiple indicators
  • Use of assessments that measure higher-order thinking and problem-solving to help students prepare for work and civic life in the 21st century
  • Small class sizes to improve student achievement and close achievement gaps
  • Relevant professional development planned with the input of educators that maximizes their knowledge, skills, and abilities and provides continuous growth
  • Mentoring that provides time for new teachers to meet and work with their mentors
  • Supporting programs that foster parental involvement and community engagement

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