The No Child Left Behind Law

For over a decade, there's been an effort to establish in American education a system of "standards and accountability" in which standards would set forth what students should know and be able to do in each grade/subject; aligned assessments would help measure students' and schools' progress toward these standards; and, in different ways, students, schools, and schoolpeople would be held accountable for that progress.

Until recently, efforts to bring standards and accountability to education have been mainly the province of states and districts. But with the adoption of the No Child Left Behind Act on January 8, 2002, the federal government became a major influence. What should we expect as its timelines begin to take effect?

The New Law Is a Challenge and an Opportunity

Is the new law an obstacle to improved education or an opportunity to more tightly focus schools on the most important educational aims and strengthen the growing public confidence in public schools? (For evidence of the growing public confidence, see "High Standards," American Educator, Notebook, Summer 2003.) That's the question AFT President Sandra Feldman put to the 3,000 AFT members who attended this summer's AFT QuEST educational issues conference.

Her answer: It's both. Noting that some critics of the law call it "the most anti-public school legislation ever" and some public school advocates call it the right "medicine," Feldman stated that, "As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle—with a lot yet to be revealed in the law's implementation—and most especially in the willingness of the Bush Administration and the Congress to fund its mandates."

Feldman noted that "this union has always stood up to radicals who push destructive schemes in the name of reform," and promised members that they could "continue to count on that, again and again." But, she continued, "this union and its members have also always understood that some criticisms of public education are legitimate. Often, in fact, we're the first to point out problems and the first to propose solutions—and we're going to carry on that proud tradition."

She called the federal No Child Left Behind Act, with its newly reshaped Title I provisions, the latest "test of our ability to be constructive, responsive, and creative while simultaneously fighting and protecting against the indefensible." The following excerpts are condensed from her speech.

NCLB and Teacher Qualifications
NCLB requires that all newly hired teachers be "highly qualified" and that veteran teachers meet the "highly qualified" standard by the end of the 2005-2006 school year. Feldman addressed the opportunities, as well as the problems, that this presents:

"[Until now, it's been standard practice for states to have] reams of fairly useless rules and regulations for teachers to follow [but nevertheless to] fail to define what competent teaching actually is.... Yet here is this new law requiring states to provide every classroom with a highly qualified teacher.... A lot of state and district administrators don't like this—after all, it's a lot cheaper and more convenient to recruit for hard-to-staff schools by waiving qualifications or assigning teachers out of field. But, that is a totally unacceptable substitute for providing the salaries and working conditions necessary to ensure an adequate supply of qualified teachers—in every field and for every school.

Now for the first time, because of this law, each state is being forced to develop real standards for the skills and knowledge that qualified teachers should have, as well as a system for seeing whether these standards have been met.

Opportunity or challenge? Both.

There are real problems that have to be addressed.... [These new requirements] could be mishandled in ways that could drive a lot of talented people out of the classroom.... Retesting experienced one sure way to do that. Another sure way is to use the law's teacher-quality provision as a backdoor to wipe out qualifications for teaching altogether.

We're not going to stand idly by and let that happen.... Yet, if all we do is focus on the potential harm that can be done by the law, then we'll be doing a disservice to our students, our profession, our union, and to each and every individual teacher.

Some states are open to seeing the law's provision as an opportunity to replace meaningless requirements with high standards and sound practices for qualifying teachers, including improvements in teacher education, induction and professional development programs, and perhaps even an end to out-of-license teaching.

To the credit of affiliate leaders across the country, the AFT has already started to work with community allies, superintendents, and state education departments to come up with ways to address these provisions to the benefit of students, teachers, and the profession as a whole.

NCLB and Accountability
In 1994 when standards, testing, and accountability provisions were added to the old Title I law, there were many problems—many similar to those in the new law. The 1994 law required that Title I students be brought to higher standards quickly; as with this new law, the earlier law also failed to require that teachers be given the necessary training, materials, or other resources. Tests often didn't align to standards, and accountability was often meted out with gratuitous harshness (and with no positive effects for kids). With regard to the earlier and current laws, Feldman said:

"The AFT protested and worked to ameliorate the wrong-headed parts of that law. But, in the AFT way, we did more than just protest. Together, we continued to fight for our vision of how to do this right—from district offices to state capitols, while simultaneously working ourselves to the bone to seize every opportunity that Title I provided, to do what we've pressed for from the first day of our history: improve the education of the most vulnerable children in this land.

The result was our best work ever. AFT leaders and members across the country did an extraordinary job of transforming the pressure of the new Title I into working with parents, community groups, administrators, and school board members to make turning around low-performing schools a top priority; getting research on what works to help kids learn and discovering proven programs; seeking major improvements in the standards and the tests; insisting on professional development that was actually helpful; expanding our Educational Research and Dissemination program (ER&D); turning around beginning reading instruction; even writing curriculum because no one else would provide it. And this is just a bare summary.

So, standards, assessment and accountability, not to mention pressure, aren't exactly new to us. And if we didn't back away from Title I and the standards movement at a time when every mistake in the book was being made by states and districts first learning to deal with these changes because—pain notwithstanding—we believed so strongly that this was right for our students, then we're not about to do it now. We are not going to put ourselves above a program whose resources, inadequate though they are, continue to be so desperately needed by our poorest students and most under-funded schools.

But, neither are we going to give up our right—indeed, our obligation—to criticize, to point out what's wrong, and to seek improvements."

The crux of the problem with the accountability portion of this law is the formula for what's called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Under the law, all schools generally must raise achievement so that all their students are "proficient" within 12 years. Feldman explained:

"This means that schools whose students are way behind from the start have to make far, far more annual progress—both on average and with each of their subgroups—than schools already at or beyond the state's starting point. Indeed, the experts told us—and we and they tried to tell Congress—that this AYP formula is not only statistically stacked against diverse schools; it also calls on most high-poverty schools—with their well-documented lack of resources—to achieve a rate of academic progress that has never before been seen—not in our most advantaged schools and not even in so-called world-class school systems.

Moreover, despite the word "progress" in "adequate yearly progress," the formula doesn't always give credit for progress. A school may make great progress in a year—let's say 6 points—but if the predetermined target is 7 points, tough luck; like the school that made no progress, it will be named a school "needing improvement" and certain requirements may kick in.

Now, the AFT has always believed all children can learn and that the effects of poverty can be overcome with the right conditions and supports. I believe no child should have to go to a school we wouldn't want our own to attend. And we have worked hard to achieve that goal—and we are making great progress.

But this AYP formula staggers the imagination and maybe even human capacity. Furthermore, this formula could put a large number of good schools on the "failing" list—which, since states are then required to help them, could result in even less money to help schools that are really in trouble.

You can be absolutely sure that we are watching all of this very closely. And, again, we're doing this in the AFT way: protesting, yes—but also gathering the evidence.

We are already working with measurement experts to evaluate whether, for example, the annual AYP targets set for various districts and schools are indeed attainable, and whether a school is being identified for sanctions because of statistical anomalies or for genuine academic reasons....

We will provide that evidence ... and mobilize ... to get changes.... Because accountability for that which is attainable is legitimate. But accountability for that which is humanly impossible, laudable as it may sound, is unacceptable."

NCLB Resources

NCLB is fully explained at—you'll fine a summary of the law, as well as Q&A packets on key issues like school improvement, school choice, and using funds. A complete list of AFT publications and reports on NCLB can be found at

Everyday Celebrations to Spark Up Lessons

Breaking the sound barrier, the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr. winning the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as Dwight D. Eisenhower's birthday and a Lewis and Clark Bicentennial event—these all fall on October 14th. With the Teacher's Calendar, each day offers an array of historical events, presidential proclamations, astronomical phenomena, and religious holidays to inspire a new lesson plan or just bring a fun fact to the classroom. While most entries in the calendar are a short paragraph, dozens of topics particularly relevant for K-8 classes—like Thomas Edison's birthday, the anniversary of the Titanic sinking, the 1963 March on Washington, and Arbor Day—are explored in sidebars that offer a little more background information along with books and Web sites. If you purchase a Teacher's Calendar, be sure to check out the resources in the back: facts about U.S. presidents, contact information for senators and governors, and even the 2003 American Library Association's children's books awards. To order a copy from the publisher, McGraw-Hill, go to or call 800-262-4729.

Report on Civic Participation

Two hundred years ago, fostering an able, active citizenry was the central argument for establishing free common schools—and today it remains a key concern of our educational system: witness the theme of this issue of American Educator.

According to The Civic Mission of Schools, a report published by the Carnegie Corporation and The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), there are many signs that students aren't taking to their civic roles with the enthusiasm we'd love to see. The report lays out strong evidence that student knowledge of history and civics is too low, that students have little interest in public affairs, and that they have little desire to vote. "Education for Democracy," in this issue of American Educator, draws on some of this evidence.

The report offers preliminary research suggesting that selected strategies, such as engaging students in debates of current issues and student government, may increase subsequent student participation in voting and other civic activities. The full report is online at

Display Freedom's Spread in Your Classroom

Each year Freedom House tracks the spread of democracy throughout the world with a survey called Freedom in the World. Now in its 30th year, the annual reports reveal some remarkable accomplishments: Back in 1972, 35 percent of the world's population lived in free countries; today 44 percent enjoy such freedom.

The survey designates countries as free if citizens have a broad range of political and civil rights, partly free if rights are somewhat limited, and not free if even the most basic rights are not recognized. Political and civil rights are rated on questions such as:

  • Are the legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
  • Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system open to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
  • Are there free trade unions and peasant organizations or equivalents, and is there effective collective bargaining? Are there free professional and other private organizations?
  • Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free of extensive political indoctrination?
  • Does the rule of law prevail in civil and criminal matters? Is the population treated equally under the law? Are police under direct civilian control?
  • Are property rights secure? Do citizens have the right to establish private businesses? Is private business activity unduly influenced by government officials, the security forces, or organized crime?

Since 1972, the number of free countries rose from 43 to 89 while the partly free countries increased from 38 to 55 and, most importantly, the not free countries declined from 69 to 48. Today, almost 60 percent of the 2.2 billion people enduring the lack of freedom live in just one country—China. But today's concerns are not just restricted to places like China. Nearly one-quarter of the world's electoral democracies are on shaky ground, lacking stable rule of law and widespread respect for human rights. Nevertheless, the past 30 years established a general march toward respecting the inherent rights of all people.

To learn more about Freedom in the World, go to And to order a free, poster-size Map of Freedom for your classroom, call 212/514-8040.

Map of Freedom 2003

Copyright 2003 Freedom House. Due to the small size, this map omits the names of countries and bodies of water, as well as small places such as Chechnya and Monaco. For a complete map, see the Freedom House Web site.

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