Fulfilling the promise of Brown v. Board of Education has remained central to the struggle for civil rights in education. This prompted Secretary of Education Rod Paige to assert this about the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2004: “No Child Left Behind” is a powerful, sweeping law. It is the logical step after Brown v. Board of Education, which was designed to end segregation, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which promised an equitable society. The ancient Greeks used to say, “‘Education is freedom.’ Yes, it is. And No Child Left Behind is about freedom and equality and justice” (Goldstein and Beutel 2008, cited under History of Standards-Based Reform, p. 7). The act’s statement of purpose affirms that its goal involves “closing the achievement gap between high and low-performing children, especially the achievement gaps between minority and non-minority students, and between disadvantaged and more advantaged peers.” This article includes an analysis of five areas that may be seen as hallmarks of NCLB, particularly its efforts to disaggregate student achievement by examining the achievement of students of color, students placed in special education, and students with limited English proficiency (LEP). One could argue that centering race on discussions of educational outcomes was very much a part of NCLB’s efforts to fulfill the promise of Brown. The focus is also on NCLB’s effects on the ways the field of education has dealt with teacher quality. Attempts have been made to create a balance both in the analysis as well as in the references provided. A complete list of citations is not provided; rather, a set of references is included that have served as intellectual touchstones in the debates surrounding the effects of NCLB since its initial passage almost fifteen years ago at this writing. In discussing NCLB, some context is provided by tracing its enactment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965—part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and an act that constituted a sea change in what, by many accounts, was the federal government’s role in education. Title I of the ESEA provided funding for schools in poor, mostly black neighborhoods, at the height of the Civil Rights movement and at the same time as passage of both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Thus, NCLB was nearly forty years in the making, finding its roots in the 1983 report, “A Nation at Risk,” in which the authors declared war on what the writers saw as a lack of rigor and standards in education. In turn, Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton formulated a vision of education that focused on standards, accountability, and increased testing, a vision that helped shape NCLB. Some would even argue that President Clinton’s “Goals 2000” served as the blueprint for NCLB. The assumption driving such a vision was that the underachievement of students, particularly historically underserved students, could be attributed to a lack of accountability.
Gaps in achievement persist even fifteen years after the implementation of NCLB. Schools are resegregating and funding for public schools in poor neighborhoods limits educational opportunities, ranging from extracurricular activities, special services, up-to-date textbooks and science labs to access to technology, including the Internet, and a rich curriculum that promotes critical thinking, civic engagement, and citizenship in smaller class sizes. Disparities between black, Latina/o, and white students are especially clear in the black-white achievement gap, graduation and drop-out rates, and admission to college. Many would argue that these disparities have fueled the school-to-prison pipeline. NCLB opened up spaces for school choice and the privatization of education (Hursh 2007, Lipman 2011), measurement of effective teaching, and measures of student learning, all in an effort to address the lack of equity in public education. It seemed clear that if the federal government continued to spend more money on public education, then it was necessary to develop objective, scientific measures of achievement that teachers and school administrators themselves could not provide. This was an especially important tenet within an unregulated market economy in which the United States struggled to compete—both economically and educationally. The strength of an economy rests on education and competition can ensure the quality of schools. In turn, if schools fail to meet their goals embedded in NCLB’s standards of annual yearly progress (AYP), then it followed for the architects of NCLB that the state and/or federal government could intervene by restructuring, if not closing, underperforming schools. The assumptions underlying NCLB remain open for much debate and discussion, as does the question of whether equal educational opportunity remains an issue of civil rights in our time. Alternatively, works such as Berliner 2013, Hursh 2007, and Lipman 2011 question whether the commitment to equity with the passage of the ESEA has waned given the increased focus on standards and accountability in the reauthorization of NCLB in 2015. That is, can the principle of sameness (i.e., the same standards and the same tests) embedded in the reauthorization of NCLB provide equity in poor communities where multiple social and economic factors impact student life and performance? Is it possible to reform education and increase achievement without also recognizing the ecology of schooling that includes neighborhoods, families, city and state governments, and federal policies that all affect education? Others, such as Goldstein and Beutel 2008 (cited under History of Standards-Based Reform), examine the economic assumptions underlying NCLB and challenge educators to think more broadly about the purpose of education as more than ensuring the well-being of the nation. At the same time, Hess and Petrilli 2007 urge readers in their No Child Left Behind Primer to consider the wisdom of standards-based reform set out in NCLB.
Berliner, David. “Effects of Inequality and Poverty vs. Teachers and Schooling on America’s Youth.” Teachers College Record 115.12 (2013): 1–25.
Presents data to show that socioeconomic circumstances in the lives of children account for at least 60 percent of the factors that affect student learning. Makes the argument that efforts to reform education must go hand-in-hand with initiatives to reduce poverty and ensure that children have access to quality health care and living conditions.
Bloomfield, David, and Bruce Cooper. “NCLB: A New Role for the Federal Government; An Overview of the Most Sweeping Federal Education Law since 1965.” THE Journal (2003).
Provides a historical overview of education reform that is in keeping with others who connect No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Both NCLB and ESEA mark turning points in the federal government’s role in education through funding and curriculum, respectively.
Hess, Frederick M., and Michael J. Petrilli. No Child Left Behind Primer. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.
Provides a comprehensive introduction to NCLB—its purpose, bipartisan support, and the various components, including increased testing, standards, and accountability. Discussion also focuses on other important issues related to disaggregating data for historically underserved students, LEP students, and students with special needs. Finally, emphasis is given to the annual yearly progress (AYP) requirement, school choice, and measurement of teacher quality and student learning.
Hursh, David. “Exacerbating Inequality: The Failed Promise of the No Child Left Behind Act.” Race, Ethnicity and Education 10.3 (2007): 295–308.
Argues that by focusing on education as the solution to social and economic inequality, NCLB diverts the public’s attention away from issues such as poverty, lack of decent paying jobs, and health care. These are issues that the federal government needs to address if federal legislation can fulfill the promise of NCLB and its goal of closing the black-white achievement gap.
Lipman, Pauline. The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Connects standards-based reform in Chicago to NCLB to argue that such an approach exacerbates inequality. Students in insufficiently resourced schools are learning low-level skills that prepare them for a service economy and not the high-level skills needed for an information-based economy. Also traces standards-based reform and school choice to neoliberal economic policies rooted in a free-market economy that promotes privatization of goods and services.
Losen, Daniel. “Challenging Racial Disparities: The Promise and Pitfalls of the No Child Left Behind Act’s Race-Conscious Accountability.” Howard Law Journal 47.2 (2004): 243–298.
Draws some important parallels between Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Title I of NCLB and what it means to think about education as a civil right. Argues that NCLB alone cannot lead to equity unless government oversight enforces civil rights law. As it stands a disproportionate number of African American and Latina/o students often attend poorly resourced schools with less rigorous curricula; they are overrepresented in special education classes; and they do not have access to qualified teachers.
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