The Unintended Consequences of No Child Left Behind
Over the years many people have become inflamed with increasing federal encroachment on states’ rights, specifically with regards to education. Federal encroachment, however, has not always been bad. For instance, the decision of Brown v. Wade that called for desegregation of public schools was not fully enforced until federal law saw to it with the Elementary and Secondary School Act of 1965, more than ten years after the Supreme Court decision (McDermott, K. A., Jensen, L. S., 2005). According to McDermott et al (2005) “NCLB now employs the power of the purse in an effort to force states and localities to hold all students to high standards and to end what President Bush has labeled “the soft bigotry of low expectations” (Lemann, 1997).” The goals of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are commendable in scope and intent; however, have the unintended consequences given rise to more problems than ever envisioned?
In order to evaluate the effectiveness of NCLB it is necessary to gain an understanding of the policy’s intent. As Bush labeled the system as being one of “soft bigotry,” the first aim was to close the achievement gap that existed between minority and white students. The second goal (very much interrelated to the first) was to improve literacy, by making reading a priority in the curriculum. The government also wanted to reduce a bureaucracy that they saw as inefficient, and last “reward success and sanction failure” (No Child Left Behind, 2002). This was one of the most far- reaching programs ever initiated by the government, and while some would argue that it was not a mandate in the sense that states did not have to follow the policies, the economic strings that the government attached to the policy made it virtually impossible for states to not adhere to it. In the words of McDermott et al (2005) “You can’t call it [NCLB] a mandate. It’s a tradeoff if you accept the money.”
It is evident in the text of NCLB that the students the act was really aiming to help were those who were underserved and underperforming. However, according to Linda Darling- Hammond (2007) the unforeseen consequences of NCLB have really had the opposite effect of what policymakers had hoped for. In Hammond’s words the results “are a narrowed curriculum, focused on the low-level skills generally reflected on high- stakes tests; inappropriate assessment of English language learners and students with special needs; and strong incentives to exclude low-scoring students from school, so as to achieve test score targets. In addition, the law fails to address the pressing problems of unequal educational resources across schools serving wealthy and poor children and the shortage of well-prepared teachers in high-need schools” (2007).
The last point made by Darling- Hammond stating that there remains an unequal distribution of resources across schools has been corroborated by Manna (2008) as he notes that from 2004-05, “the share of Title I funding for the highest-poverty schools also remained virtually unchanged since 1997- 98, and those schools continued to receive smaller Title I allocations per low-income student than did low-poverty schools.” How could a system that aimed to provide funding to those most in need in actuality have done the exact opposite? Manna has argued that “the federal contribution is so small and spread so thinly across many districts and schools that these targeted federal dollars are essentially unable to create more equitable patterns of per pupil expenditures across district lines” (2008).
As Darling- Hammond (2005) noted, in addition to the lack of funds being disbursed to those most in need there also seems to be a problem with the forms of assessment that NCLB insists upon in order to maintain a structure of accountability. These tests have been criticized as lacking true rigor, which has the implication that they do not hold our students to high expectations (a stated aim of NCLB). In an ironic twist, those who argue against the repercussions of NCLB on the premise that it is an encroachment on states rights and that it has not truly upheld its mission, would be surprised to hear the opinions of Manna. According to Manna (2005), the very reason why these tests have lacked rigor and high expectations is because NCLB has given the states too much leeway in creating their own exams that they have caved to the pressures of accountability and created tests that are at best watered down.
The implications of the lack of rigor that state tests exhibit are two- fold. First, NCLB’s goal of raising standards has not been achieved. Second, due to the variance in testing across the country it has become impossible to objectively gauge how states are performing relative to one another (Manna, 2005).
In light of the inconsistencies across state testing and standards it becomes increasingly difficult to really determine if the policy has had positive effects on the national level. However, several studies have noted a narrowing of the achievement gap since the inception of NCLB (Manna, 2005). One study in particular, was done through the U.S. Department of Education over several years in thirty- five states. The findings noted “low-income students improved their performance in elementary school reading in 27 of 35 states, a finding that paralleled mathematics achievement for middle school students” (Manna, 2005).
Overall, there have been more negative responses to NCLB than positive. Many of the unforeseen consequences have resulted from the freedom that many states have been given in interpreting and handling the policy. So, while many critics have argued against NCLB’s unfunded mandates, I want to push this argument further by stating that while the federal government has the ability to see education policy from a much broader perspective, it has failed to complement that perspective with the critical and unique issues of individual states.