No Child Left Behind College Essay

One of the least discussed legacies of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) on American education has been its spillover effect in higher education. Students educated under NCLB become the walking zombies of intensified testing and continuous assessment in their high schools, where most of the joys of inquiry and learning have been eliminated from the curriculum. As they have graduated and moved on to college, they have become the targets of similar strategies to remake public universities. Over the past decade, the educational and political logic contained in NCLB and its successors, Race to the Top and the Common Core, have begun to alter the once-liberal approach to learning found in public universities, threatening to turn them into large high schools.

The high-schoolization of the university can be observed in the increased reliance on standardized curricula and syllabi; in standardized modes of “content delivery” and testing sold by textbook companies or provided by various online providers; in the never-ending assessments of courses, professors, and programs; and in the growing use of “student data analytic programs” like MapWorks and Signals to monitor the activities of students and professors. These developments parallel the growing reliance of universities on contingent faculty, who are often too busy commuting between universities to have time to design their classes, much less do research or student advising. The new metrics-driven “managerial university” is increasingly composed of many “knowledge managers” (formerly known as university administrators) and many disempowered part-time faculty forced to scurry from place to place to make ends meet.

The high-schoolization of the university can also be observed in the growing fascination with student learning outcomes (SLOs) and competency-based education—ideas both drawn from largely discredited primary, secondary, and vocational school reform efforts of the past. Like advocates of high-stakes testing and value-added measures in public schools, proponents of these ideas contend that if only we can precisely define what students need to know, it will then be possible to measure their learning through standardized assessment. Such assessment would allow universities to be more tightly managed and education to be “self-paced” as students check off various knowledge areas and skills and receive corresponding credentials or badges. Students could be educated without or with few professors or books, as is currently done at Western Governors University, at Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, in Kaplan’s Open College, and in Capella’s FlexPath program. In this new system, the remaining professors become “product managers” or “course mentors” (in WGU’s warm and fuzzy framing) who develop standards for the competencies.

While, in isolation, each of the above changes appears merely to be a pragmatic response to the complex individual problems confronting universities today, such as accreditation demands or the need to increase retention and graduation rates or to close the largely mythical “skills gap,” these various reforms taken together signal something much more systematic, widespread, and sinister: the deliberate dismantling of the liberal university with its traditions of relatively autonomous institutions, professional and independent faculty, and self-directed students.

The Impact Of Neoliberal Reforms

The attack on the liberal university and public education in general can be traced to the variety of neoliberal reforms of higher education that have been promoted globally since the 1980s by think tanks in the United States and the United Kingdom and groups such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Bank. In essence, these reforms sought to bring a “bottom-line” economic logic to public institutions through the generation of market-like systems of efficiency and competition. This was accomplished through direct privatization and by increasing competition between units and institutions, putting in place consumer choice mechanisms, attacking collective bargaining, limiting the power and autonomy of public employees, switching from state aid to student loan schemes, and introducing public management strategies to weed out inefficiencies. Accompanying these new tactics has been a growing emphasis on the accountability of public institutions in order to monitor and limit public expenditures so that they do not become a burden on profits in the private sector.

Historically, the social liberal welfare state, in the United States and elsewhere, relied on a relatively loose arrangement in which the state granted universities charters that allowed them to operate relatively autonomously with only indirect oversight by the state. The neoliberal state, however, has taken on a much more directive and heavy-handed role in monitoring public education at all levels in the name of oversight and increasing efficiency. In order to accomplish its goals, the neoliberal state has borrowed from various management philosophies, such as “reengineering the corporation,” “total quality management,” and “disruptive innovation.” Under neoliberalism, the state didn’t recede; rather, it became increasingly active in enabling markets and promoting market-like and entrepreneurial behavior. In order to be a better auditor, the neoliberal state needs the big data generated by the continuous monitoring that assessment provides, even if the data are limiting, self-serving, self-perpetuating, and of suspect quality.

In the United States, the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 helped to kick off the neoliberal reforms of the university by magnifying the profit motive in university research. This early reform largely left the internal operations and curricula of universities alone, however; it wasn’t until the Spellings Commission made its influential recommendations in 2006 that the high-schoolization process got fully under way. Most members of the Spellings Commission were neoliberal reformers who had already indicated that they wanted higher education to become more responsive to economic imperatives and to control quality and enable consumer choice through data gathering. This is often how realpolitik works; the findings of what appears to be a careful, unbiased study were in actuality preordained.

Commissions and their reports are, however, only the tip of the iceberg of an elaborate global policymaking network. In this sense, it has not mattered much whether reforms were put forward by conservative or liberal groups. Indeed, when it comes to education policy in the United States, it is often difficult to tell the difference between the policy objectives and statements of the conservative Heritage Foundation and those of the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Both champion the use of “disruptive innovation,” both advocate for student learning outcomes, and both promote a competency-based curriculum. The only difference appears to be the degree to which they want to use markets to produce social goods, but even there the difference is marginal.

While the recommendations of the Spellings Commission were echoed in President Barack Obama’s call in 2014 for linking federal student aid with university performance measures and are a presence in this year’s reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, most of the significant action since the commission’s report has occurred at the state level through model legislation crafted by the American Legislative Exchange Councilor through the Center for Best Practices at the National Governors Association. At both the state and institutional levels, these reforms have also been promoted by neoliberal think tanks on the right and the left, such as the Heritage Foundation, the Institute for Higher Education Policy, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and the Center for American Progress, which have produced white papers advocating for marketbased reforms and the expansion of auditing practices.

Such policies have also been put forward by activist philanthropists and “edu-preneurs” seeking either to promote their particular policy agendas or sell their knowledge wares to universities. These philanthropic groups, such as the Lumina and Gates foundations, are no longer content simply to give public organizations money to support their activities; they have essentially become political action committees that seek to transform those organizations to fit their own interests. These organizations know, as Max Weber argued a century ago, that in modern democratic societies ideas have power only if they have access to formal legal mechanisms to institutionalize them. You may win hearts and minds through propaganda or charismatic authority or “advocacy research,” but you will never impose your will without access to and control of the instruments of legal authority.

As this network of think tanks, commissions, and philanthropists has solidified over the last decade or so, it has incorporated university administrators and boards into its nexus of influence. University administrators have been exposed to neoliberal ideas and new higher education products at various annual conventions of higher education associations, at events such as the Education Innovation Summit, and in expensive briefings by consulting firms like McKinsey and Company, Boston Consulting, and Campus Strategies, LLC. Universities have adopted strategies promoted at these events, usually haphazardly and without much consideration of their origins or possible outcomes, in order to “be at the forefront of disruptive innovation,” often at the behest of boards that are increasingly composed of business-minded neoliberals who lack direct knowledge of the system they are overseeing.

High Stakes

If the assault on public higher education is successful, our students will have a radically different experience from previous generations. Although elite institutions will probably be relatively unchanged, elsewhere students will attend professor-less (or nearly professorless) institutions with course materials designed by “edu-metricians” and provided online; their work will be assessed by “education specialists” using standardized rubrics and “competency mapping.” These cut-rate education retailers will serve mostly middle- and lower-income students at community colleges or at mid-level state universities like my own. Students at these institutions will be expected to become rational consumers who are responsible in the choice of university, debt load, and major; at the same time, they will be monitored to make sure they spend their time and money prudently as they go about checking off their SLOs. University budgets will increasingly rely on patents or, when funding is provided by the state or through federal student aid, will be determined by how well institutions show “value added” through the performance measures provided by competency-based education. And an increasing number of administrators will spend most of their day in the classic “data death spiral,” gazing at spreadsheets and managing and mining the “big data” of assessment matrixes.

In the end, neoliberal policies undoubtedly will produce the stated goal of market variation, but they will do so with increased stratification, surveillance, and auditing—killing, ironically, the very liberalism that gave birth to both neoliberalism and the modern university.

Steven C. Ward is professor of sociology at Western Connecticut State University. His most recent book is Neoliberalism and the Global Restructuring of Knowledge and Education. His work has appeared in academic journals as well as in publications such as the Conversation, Newsweek, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Times Higher Education. His e-mail address is


This paper researches the history of the causal problems that led to U.S. government policy resulting in the No Child Left Behind Act. It explains how the topic became a public policy problem, who placed it on the policy agenda and when, what the Act does and how it works, the institutions that have acted according to its requirements so far, and the current situation as of 2012.

Background and Legislative History

According to a U.S. Department of Education document “A Guide to Education and No Child Left Behind” (2004) the origins of the Act and the principles on which it is based can be traced to the Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of education in May 1954.

Wolff (1997) stated that the verdict in the Brown case was a judicial landmark in the U.S. because it effectively overturned “separate but equal” racial segregation principles established in an interpretation of the 14th Amendment in the much earlier case of Plessy v. Ferguson. That Plessy decision effectively meant that U.S. society was segregated in many aspects; not just in schools and colleges but on buses, in restrooms, using drinking fountains and even separate black and white witness stands in courts. In effect, the “separate but equal” concept had in reality produced a very unequal society in which, following the decision in the Brown case, non-whites had to battle for true equality through civil rights marches and other actions in a campaign for true equality. Wolff mentions a prayer pilgrimage for integrated schools in May 1957, attended by circa 35,000. Then in 1959, a petition signed by 400,000 was presented to Congress, again urging the President to implement an urgent program to integrate the country’s schools.

Then, as described in “1964 Civil Rights Act” (n.d.), John F Kennedy campaigned before his 1960 election for a new act to protect civil rights. In a televised speech in June 1963, he forcibly reminded his audience of the inequalities that disadvantaged the blacks in America, but was assassinated in that November while his Civil Rights Bill was still going through Congress. Lyndon B Johnson took up the cause and – despite strong opposition from factions in the southern states – on 15th June that year the Civil Rights Act passed into law. That legislation made it illegal to discriminate on racial grounds in any public location such as a restaurant, a theater or hotel, and permitted projects federal funding to be withdrawn if racial discrimination was found. Also, firms were obliged to offer equal opportunities in employment.
Then in 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) also became law, as described in Hanna’s article in the summer 2005 issue of “Ed.”, the magazine of the Harvard School of Education. Her article states that following Kennedy’s assassination “President Lyndon B. Johnson made education and civil rights the foundation of his War on Poverty”.

Following the ESEA success came the task of ensuring that schools were observing the laws regarding racial integration, which was not always consistent. In the following years various amendments or “reauthorizations” were implemented to ensure that Act’s intents were fulfilled. One such in the Clinton era in 1994 effectively rewrote ESEA so that all states introduced a standards-based philosophy into their schools. Children were subjected to tests to measure their abilities and progress against defined standards.

Then, in his 2000 election campaign, George W Bush declared that a high priority for new legislation during his first year as President of the United States was to overhaul Federal education policy. At the very center of his plan was to introduce a compulsory annual tests regime in U.S. schools, thereby monitoring students’ progress and to penalize both states and individual schools if low scores in tests were not improved upon. This was a way to facilitate closer observance to ensure that equality actually was being achieved.

According to the report “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001”(n.d.) by the OLPA, Representative John Boehner introduced the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) on 22 March 2001. Following committee hearings and amendments in March through May, the House passed the Act (as amended) on June 14 and it was eventually signed into law by President George W Busch on January 8, 2002. It was noted in “A Guide to Education and No Child Left Behind” that the final votes taken in Senate and in Congress produced overwhelming majorities in both cases.

Effects of the NCLB

According to “A Guide to Education and No Child Left Behind” the NCLB Act “ensures accountability and flexibility as well as increased federal support for education”. It also follows the principle implicit in the Brown v. Board verdict by continuing to develop a fairer, more inclusive system of school-based education.

Jorgensen and Hoffman (2003) published an assessment report on the NCLB Act. They reported that NCLB introduced a new era of accountability, with involvement at local level and including parents, to ensure that children were learning as they should. Their report quoted Rod Paige, U.S. Secretary of Education, who said that the aim of NCLB “is to see every child in America––regardless of ethnicity, income, or background––achieve high standards.” Under NCLB, funding provided to schools has been made directly linked with accountability. Working with state-defined standards for the various grades, schools must ensure every student acquires the expected skills and knowledge levels. As the authors noted, “All means all.” The prescribed NCLB reporting systems require that every individual student is included in the data reported.
Jorgensen and Hoffman reported that at the state level, NCLB requires that each state creates an assessment system that tracks – against commonly applied instructional standards – the progress of every student. However, the NCLB regulations allow schools and school districts to have flexibility of control of teaching methods, yet at the same time remaining accountable for the results obtained. States have to assess all students in both reading and math, from third through to eighth grades. Tests are based on state standards and the results published so that performance of any school is available for all to see. In addition, schools have to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) of disadvantaged children. Schools unable to show the required progress are not just assisted in that regard, but may also be subject to corrective procedures. The states themselves are also accountable under NCLB; they are required to submit detailed reports about their plans, their standards, their reporting procedures and so on.

In return for that increased duty of accountability, states have been given much greater flexibility and control of just how they utilize federal funding made available to them. Through state administration, schools are able to assign funding as best needed, for example to help keep the best teachers, or for the purposes of professional development or training, without needing to seek federal approval separately. The states are also afforded more freedom and control in respect of programs established and operated for students learning the English language.

Jorgensen and Hoffman also point out that parents having children who are attending schools they consider might be unsafe or under-performing have the options within NCLB regulations to arrange transfer to a different school or additional tutoring. The scope of the NCLB includes the facility to support schools in the identification and utilization of successful instructional programs and to make funds available for scientifically-based teaching systems, and for teachers to use in enhancing their effective teaching methods and skills.

Jorgensen and Hoffman’s summary statement is well worth repeating verbatim:

Education opens doors to children for a lifetime and leads to their success. NCLB is the engine driving a new era of accountability for every child’s learning journey. Children who are being left behind must be identified and states will have the responsibility to provide the resources to teach every child how to read, to apply mathematics, to study, to learn—to succeed.

Although that summary statement is inspiring, not everyone saw the effects of NCLB in a positive light. Toppo (2007) writing in USA Today, discussed a range of effects of NCLB, as perceived by schoolteachers and others. Responses were mixed, although those views and reactions to NCLB pre-dated a then upcoming reauthorization of NCLB.

Views reported in Toppo’s article include that of Barbara Adderley, principal of Stanton Elementary School in Philadelphia. She feels her days are dominated by “talking about or looking at data” and attending meetings about the progress of every student. However, at her school, whereas in 2003 the children meeting state-defined reading standards were less than two in every 10, by 2005 that figure had grown to seven in 10. Toppo did point out in his article that maybe more time was needed to confirm that the NCLB was improving education nationally, partly because not all schools started immediately to follow NCLB regulations. He quotes Margaret Spellings, U.S. Education Secretary, as saying that the law wasn’t fully enacted in all U.S. States until 2006. However, Toppo maintained that NCLB has had a big influence on the school day for children and gave five major points on the ways it brought changes to schools:

  • Although senior education officials like and support NCLB, teachers generally dislike the mandated testing, especially for the younger children.
  • Because of the specific math and English teaching rules under NCLB, schools find they have less time to teach other subjects, so narrowing the curriculum.
  • Children previously overlooked (under-achievers and minority groups) now receive much more attention and even additional tutoring.
  • Schools that consistently don’t meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets can be made to add free after-school tutoring; lengthening the school day.
  • NCLB’s annual reading funding of circa $1billion targets the 5,000+ schools that teach America’s poorest 1.8 million children, though not all teachers support the teaching methods used, especially the DIBELS test method.

The Situation in 2012

Martin (July 2012) in an article published by CNN, discusses the current situation with the NCLB. Because critics complain that the Act has created a “teach to the test” culture, federal officials are permitting states to apply for waivers that allow them to set their own state standards for elements of the law, so long as they can show they will initiate reforms approved by the government, including linking test results to evaluations made by teachers. The article reports that currently around half of the country’s schools are not yet meeting NCLB targets for reading proficiency and graduation. Meanwhile, changes to NCLB that could result from a further reauthorization of the Act are blocked in Congress. It is for that reason that President Obama has agreed to these waivers, which vary in detail from state to state. In Michigan for example, Martin reports that the NCLB target date of 2014 for every student to pass the tests no longer applies. Instead, the Department of Education in Michigan will set its own date.


Racial inequality in U.S. education policies going right back to the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896 was the principal causal problem that in due course led to U.S. government policy resulting in the No Child Left Behind Act. The Act was placed on the policy agenda following introduction by Representative John Boehner in March 2001 and eventually signed into law by President George W Busch on January 8, 2002.



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