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The Trouble with No Child Left Behind

Tags Big GovernmentEducationTaxes and SpendingInterventionism

03/23/2010Anton Batey

Good intentions are no excuse to continue a failed policy. Many bad policies in history were surely paved with good intentions. For instance, President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" was intended to dramatically reduce poverty and, in Johnson's words, "elevate hope."[1] Those who support the so-called "War on Drugs" may have some good intentions, but their program has turned into a nightmare more properly referred to as a "War on (Certain) Drugs" or a "War on Liberty" specifically aimed at minorities.[2]

The same applies to the No Child Left Behind Act. According to President George W. Bush, he wanted to "enact a plan to improve all of America's public schools, so that no child is left behind."[3] Even the late senator from Massachusetts Ted Kennedy praised the intent, "'President Bush has made education one of his top priorities." Kennedy expressed his support for the program.[4] The results of this disastrous agenda, however, not only contradict the very name of the program, but trump whatever alleged "good intention" was behind it.

On January 8th, 2002, President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), intended to improve proficiency in math and reading. It sets the expectation of 100% compliance among Title One public schools by 2013 or 2014. It passed in the House on 13 May 2001 by 384–45, and it passed in the Senate on 14 June 2001 by 91–8.

According to the bill, students in the schools must pass standardized tests. If an insufficient number pass the first year, there are no sanctions.[1] If the school's students fail a second year, then "technical assistance" is provided, whereby parents can send their children to different schools. If the parents decide to do so, then the transportation is provided by the school district of where the child lives. If the school fails a third year, then the school must pay for supplemental educational services for the students. If they fail a fourth year, then management restructuring takes place. On the fifth year of failure, all staff are replaced, and the school could turn into a charter or private school.

There are rare instances where extreme advocates on both the Left and Right agree on public policy and are opposed to a specific program. This is one of those instances, and for good reason. Notable and respected conservative George Will claims that the program "spawned lowered standards."[5] Walter E. Williams, another respected conservative and a professor of economics at George Mason University, condemned the program "that billions of dollars are spent on." He argues that "without a civilized learning environment, academic excellence is impossible no matter how much money is spent."[6] Former Republican presidential nominee Pat Buchanan denounced the program as part of Bush's "big government," rhetorically asking "what Republican ran last time for cutting back George Bush's big government?… Who stood up and said no to No Child Left Behind?"[7]

Noted economist Milton Friedman said, shortly before his death, regarding the program, "Recent federal legislation in the No Child Left Behind Act requires all states to develop regular performance measures of student learning and to make these measures publicly available. As for the typical parent who still believes his or her child attends an above-average school, what will happen when many of them learn they are wrong?"Download PDF Libertarian Charles Murray said that the program "set a goal that was devoid of any contact with reality."[8]

Of course, many left-liberals are opposed to the program as well. Al Franken, for instance, in his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them criticized the NCLB program, saying that since "Congress authorized a $5.6 billion increase in Title One spending for low income children," and "President Bush budgeted only $1 billion for Title One … if Title One calls for $2,800 per poverty-level student," then "1,643,857" children will be "left behind" (pp. 349–351). Prominent socialist James Flynn, in his debate with Charles Murray in 2006, also criticized the Act.

Barack Obama said of the act, "don't come up with this law called No Child Left Behind and then leave the money behind.… Don't tell us that you'll put high-quality teachers in every classroom and then leave the support and the pay for those teachers behind.… Don't label a school as failing one day and then throw your hands up and walk away from it the next."

The reasons for opposing the program are manifold, and they are largely dependent upon whom the criticism comes from. I am opposed to the program from a libertarian, government-reduction perspective. The No Child Left Behind legislation has vastly increased standardized tests and created a muddle of federal regulations with results opposite from their intentions.

At first glance, the concept of standardized tests seems reasonable. Children should be tested, and the tests are clear indicators either of how intelligent they are or of how much the school is teaching them. But what is the school "teaching" them, exactly? The answer is simple but unfortunate: they're teaching them how to take the test.

Linda Valli, Maryland associate professor of education, conducted a long study on the federal program and determined that standardized testing "actually undermined the quality of teaching in reading and math" and that the decline in teacher quality and tangible information being taught to the students is because of "the pressure teachers were feeling to 'teach to the test.'"

Alfie Kohn, author of over a dozen books on education, parenting, and anthropology, decries NCLB's "overemphasis on standardized testing and punitive sanctions." He generally disparages the program, saying that the "law is not about narrowing the achievement gap; its main effect has been to sentence poor children to an endless regimen of test-preparation drills." And furthermore, "even if the scores do rise, it's at the expense of a quality education."[9] According to a 50-state survey by Teachers Network, a nonprofit education organization, only 3% of teachers think No Child Left Behind helps them teach more efficiently.

One infamous criticism that English teachers gave concerned the time spent on the proper use of a comma as opposed to on developmental writing skills. As Richard and JoAnne Vacca noted in their book, Content Area Reading, "good readers are often good writers," and "wide reading improves writing." However, since the federal, standardized tests place more emphasis on grammatical correctness than on reading comprehension, in the class, reading is sacrificed to punctuation precision. Virtually no person, however, would seriously argue that in the real world, reading comprehension is less important than knowing where to put a comma or knowing what verbs and nouns are. This is especially true in the real world of contracts, newspapers, etc.

NCLB is simply a way for the federal government to tighten its grip on schools by threatening them with punishment. Those who control the schools control the future. The tests and regulations indirectly control what children learn in school (and what they do not learn in school).

"Those who control the schools control the future."

More importantly, what are the results of the program? One should keep in mind, however, what Kohn said regarding the scores: the higher test scores may come at the cost of learning. However, in 2006, for example, math and reading test scores dropped significantly, showing that only 32% of high-school students were proficient in math.[10]

What about high-school graduation rates? Surely the rate of graduations is reflective of school quality and efficiency, which No Child Left Behind was supposed to improve. In 2008, a report sponsored by America's Promise Alliance, which was prepared by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, showed that schools in major cities in the United States had a horrible 52% graduation rate after four years; the national average is 70%, which still isn't good. In areas like Baltimore, with a graduation rate of 34%, Columbus, with a graduation rate of 41%, and Detroit, with an awful rate of 25%, their suburbs are at 80% or higher.[11] These urban areas were supposed to be the ones No Child Left Behind would target.

Roughly 1.2 million students drop out every year, according to researchers.[12] Thus, any test-score improvement is itself only representative of those who are still in school. It's similar to a charlatan like Pat Robertson bragging that the divorce rate is down and not bothering to mention that marriage rates are down even further.

Most important, perhaps, is the fact that the No Child Left Behind Act is completely unconstitutional. There's nothing in the Constitution that permits the federal government getting involved in education. This fact was ignored by President George W. Bush, who, in November 2005, infamously referred to the US Constitution as "just a goddamned piece of paper."[13] In February 2005, a bipartisan panel of state lawmakers concluded that the program is unconstitutional since it trumps state and local control over schools.[14] They claim that "This assertion of federal authority into an area historically reserved to the states has had the effect of curtailing additional state innovations and undermining many that had occurred during the past three decades."

Some claim that, since participation in NCLB is optional at the state level, it's not coercive at the federal level. This excuse is ridiculous, and the same federal/state policies apply with highway funds if BAC isn't lowered to .08, for instance. Opting out doesn't mean they don't get taxed (via their citizens) in proportion to the money not spent by the feds on education, so it's really not much of an option. Tax money is extracted out of the state, and then states are given the "option" to participate in the program in order to get some of that money back. It's passive-aggressive coercion. Optional or not, the federal government has no authority to be involved in education.

Many people who support the program applaud the vast sums of money that are sunk into it. Is money the answer? The author of Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol, thinks so. According to him, "grossly insufficient funding" is to blame for poor results in Chicago. Kozol claims that the children's "problems stem from short funding," and that the "low funding of the schools that they attend confirm the wisdom" that more funding is necessary. Kozol does, however, concede that "it is obvious that urban schools have other problems in addition to their insufficient funding."

In 1984, a federal judge in Missouri ordered that the property tax in Kansas City be doubled, the income tax be increased, and other state funds be redirected in order to give Kansas City schools an extra $2 billion ($4.1 billion in 2008). In 1991, Kansas City was spending $9,412 per student, compared with $2,854 to $5,956 in the suburbs. Kansas City schools were furnished with brand new textbooks, state of the art computers, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, television studios, and even funding for taxi drivers to drive children to school if there were any problems with bus fare! According to those who believe money is the answer, this would be the place to see success. Did the test scores of students increase? Not even a little.[15]

In the year 2009, in Washington, DC, funding was about $15,000 per student, and the student-to-teacher ratio was 15.2 to 1, yet the students' achievement rate was one of the nation's lowest. Perhaps the most ironic part is that parents are sending their children to other districts, which receive as little as $7,500 per student annually, in order to escape the highly-funded school district![16] That flatly undercuts the entire argument of those who claim that more funding of public schools is the answer to most, if not all, problems.

In conclusion, it's apparent that government intervention in schools is an utter failure. The notions that standardized tests will fix the problem and that pouring money into a government project will churn out superior results are likewise absurd.

Educators pouring money into a failed school are like farmers pouring expensive fertilizer onto a concrete sidewalk: the only thing you're going to promote the growth of are undesirable weeds. Even left-liberal Juan Williams, in his book Enough, acknowledged that the poor, namely the poor black, "in defiance of black politicians, have told pollsters they favored vouchers, charter schools and magnet schools to give them some chance to get their children out of those bad public schools."

Why would anyone be opposed to this? Teaching to the test, increasing government centralization, and forcing teachers to turn into robots by mandating nearly everything they teach has been shown to be a failure.

Schools operate as a taxpayer-funded monopoly, answering unconstitutionally to the federal government and the teacher's union. Further, since it is a monopoly run by a coercive monopoly, it has all the attendant problems, i.e., it has no profit-loss mechanism. This monopoly is also subject to the whims of politicians, who can mandate that something either be taught or not taught as dictated by their beliefs. These beliefs are thus foisted upon the kids, who are required by law to study the given material or else.


[1] Technically, it's a little more complicated than that. The bureaucrats generally subdivide students into groups such as Blacks, Native Americans, Whites, Students with Special Needs, etc.

If just one of those groups fails to meet standards, the whole school will "fail." So a more accurate title for the program would be "No Group Left Behind."

[1] "LBJ Announces 88 New Projects," Lodi News-Sentential, 18 Jan. 1965.

[2] Chomsky, Noam. Understanding Power. The New Press, 2002.

[3] "Bush, GOP Senators Lick Wounds but Say They're Not Too Conservative", Chicago Tribune, 25 May 2001.

[4] "On Way to Passage, Bush's Education Plan Gets a Makeover", The New York Times, 4 May 2001.

[5] George Will, "Getting Past 'No Child,'" The Washington Post, 9 Dec. 2007.

[6] Williams, Walter, "Patterns of Black Excellence," Creators Syndicate Inc., 2008.

[7] Buchanan, Pat, "Even in Massachusetts, Trouble for the Party of Government," The Union Leader, 19 Jan. 2010.

[8] Murray, Charles, "The Age of Educational Romanticism," The New Criterion, May 2008.

[9] Kohn, Alfie, "NCLB: 'Too Destructive to Salvage,'" USA Today, 31 May 2007.

[10] Walsh, James, "Math, Reading Test Scores Drop; Only 32% of High Schoolers Were Proficient in Math on Test Designed to Match Stiffer Learning Standard," Star Tribune, 15 Nov. 2006.

[11] Here are some other city/suburb splits:

New York — 47.4 percent vs. 82.9 percent

Cleveland — 42.2 percent vs. 78.1 percent

Philadelphia — 49.2 percent vs. 82.4 percent

Chicago — 55.7 percent vs. 84.1 percent

Los Angeles — 57.1 percent vs. 77.9 percent

Atlanta — 46.1 percent vs. 61.8 percent

[12] Grey, Berry, "High-School Drop Out Rate in Major US Cities at Nearly 50 Percent," World Socialist, 3 April 2008.

[13] Thompson, Doug, "Bush — Constitution 'Just a Goddamned Piece of Paper,'" Op Ed News, 11 Dec. 2005.

[14] Dillon, Sam, "Bipartisan Study Assails No Child Left Behind Act," The New York Times, 23 Feb. 2005

[15] "Desegregation's Broken Promises," Forbes.com, 10 Nov. 2003.

[16] Williams, Walter, "Dumbest Generation Getting Dumber," Creators Syndicate Inc., 2009.


Contact Anton Batey

Anton Batey teaches within the Detroit public school system. He is pursuing a master's degree in social studies at Wayne State University, also in Detroit.