When the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was enacted in 2002, it was hailed as a bipartisan victory for education reform, promising student proficiency in math and science by 2014 — but funding issues and controversial measurement systems have hindered its success. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, about 70 percent of schools are making adequate yearly progress, and national math achievement among tested students has improved since 2000. Certain areas, however, have not seen similar progress, such as reading achievement among 8th graders and graduation rates among minority students. The NCLB makes states accountable for holding their schools and students to exacting standards, and schools that fail to meet those standards for two consecutive years must undergo federally-mandated restructuring. While the basic premise of NCLB — to provide quality education to all children — is well accepted, it has suffered, in the view of many, from inadequate funding. In 2006, Democrats criticized the Bush administration for underfunding NCLB by more than $40 billion since 2001, and noted that the FY 2007 budget allocated only half the promised funding to assist disadvantaged students. The Department of Education’s inability to track and allocate funds, moreover, has made it difficult to provide necessary resources to schools most in need of assistance, according to the Government Accountability Office. Budgetary issues aside, stipulations in the law have made it difficult for some to implement the program. States are required to follow strict guidelines and success is measured by standardized tests, but critics say the law doesn’t allow for differing demographics or students’ varying abilities. This emphasis on test scores, they claim, created unintended consequences: Instead of seeking to prevent dropouts, schools had an incentive to weed out lower-achieving students to meet testing standards, and to “teach to the test,” leaving teachers with little room for innovation or classroom flexibility. The quest to meet federal guidelines also forced schools to cut programs geared for the long term, such as English language programs for minority students.
When the No Child Left Behind Act came up for reauthorization in 2007, Congress put education reform on the backburner, leaving many schools in limbo. The Department of Education has yet to provide detailed guidance to schools that continue to struggle. In 2008, more schools than any previous year failed to meet testing benchmarks because of increasingly high standards geared to the law’s 2014 deadline. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings acknowledges that parts of the law need tweaking, and, in October 2008, announced a series of regulations to strengthen NCLB, including a focus on accountability and transparency. But she remains bullish on the law. “NCLB has shined a spotlight on schools,” said Spellings in late October. “It is compelling grown ups to do the right thing by kids. And it’s working.” Ultimately, though, a Department spokesman told the Center that the new administration, along with Congress, will determine the program’s future.