No Child Left Behind - Success or Failure?

Education is the cornerstone of prospects and livelihood in a country. Ideally, better education equals better countrymen, equals better country. Hence, efforts are made by lawmakers to improve the quality of education in their respective countries. Aside from furthering progress as a whole with more and more well-educated students being produced, fostering high quality education also lands some bragging rights for a country as it climbs the education world rankings—look no further than countries like Finland.

A notable example is the US education system. In 2003, U.S. federal statesmen implemented the No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB, a revision of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It aims to provide monetary support for children in need of financial assistance, with the goal of achieving better academic performance represented by the “Adequate Yearly Progress” report, which is conducted by each school in the country. The metric for such success is the “proficiency” of the students, measured by their assessment scores in standardized tests in the subjects of reading and math.

The goal of this law is for all students in the United States to reach “100% proficiency,” through an incremental increase in assessment score results that comply to an annual score quota. Schools that fail to reach the quota are sanctioned, based on how many years in a row they have been unable to attain the proficiency quota.

NCLB is an approach to improving the overall quality of education by inclusivity by addressing financially troubled students. Is this an effective means of improving the quality of education as a whole? Read further for a discussion on the successes and failures of the law, with a conclusion on its effectiveness and how it can be improved.

The impact of NCLB

No Child Left Behind achieved some success when the National Assessment of Educational Progress surveyed the scores of students in fourth grade and eight grade, classified based on race, scores in assessment tests on reading and math, and on respective years. Students of all races seemed to have improved since NCLB’s implementation on the subject of reading, with some years enjoying the gaps between races closing at best, stagnating at least.

While the subject of reading saw improvements in the average assessment scores of the students, by no means are they astronomically superior to the scores of the students prior to the implementation of NCLB. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, overall performance in reading rose by 1 point in the decade prior to NCLB’s implementation, from 1992 to 2003, increasing only slightly to 4 points within the decade after NCLB, from 2003 to 2013. 

Worse still, math saw stagnation in assessment scores at the very least, slight slowdown at worst. Overall performance in math was a notable 18 points in the previous decade, down to 12 points in 2003 to 2013 to a measly 4 points starting from 2007. Has education in the United States improved because of NCLB?

Somewhat, yes. But even though one may emphasize that there has been some form of improvement, this is nowhere close to the projected goal of 100% proficiency. In this way, yes: for the statesmen behind the law, it was a failure.

One of the main reasons why No Child Left Behind failed is that reaching 100% proficiency is unrealistic. In no way can an entire target population attain the same level. This assumes that each member of the demographic is under the same living conditions as everyone else. Unless America is trying to run a factory, this can never be the case. Yes, characteristics such as financial status are taken into account. Even still, it is logistically impossible to factor every single individual, no matter how hard they try.

Being able to accommodate every single student perfectly in a single system is an ideal at best.
Thinking that 100% proficiency is reachable, is also implausible. Aside from the students, the schools, and the state, there are infinitely other factors to take into consideration. Education does not live in a vacuum. It resides in an ever-changing climate. This is also why the success of No Child Left Behind is very limited: education in the United States faces an environment that always changes because of many factors. Political and social climate, especially, are undeniably influential, affecting various students in many ways. 100% proficiency may be plausible in the world of ceteris paribus—all other things unchanged. Of course, reality says otherwise.

Secondly, the word “proficiency” is used so narrowly here. “Proficiency” is meant to include only the subjects of reading and math. Other classes, such as literature, art, history, science, and physical education, are neglected. Granted, reading and math are two subjects that are both technical and universal. This does not mean, however, that what is learned from these subjects can easily be applied in other subjects.

The skills in reading would be very helpful in dealing with literature, but literature on its own does not simply require reading comprehension. Other skills such as critical thinking, literary analysis, and essay writing are also important. Likewise, math is an essential skill in science, but science also requires other skills like inference, experimentation, and reports.

In other words, reading and math alone are essential in every other subject in the curriculum, but they are not the be-all, end-all subjects, either. The failure of No Child Left Behind stems from a very narrow, very technical understanding of how “proficiency” is defined.

This point may not pose a real problem, if reading and math were not the only subjects being focused. As schools face the threat of sanctions, they are forced to make students focus on these two subjects, resulting in students neglecting other subjects in school—subjects that are still essential to their academic standing in school. Either this, or the school makes a compromise to ensure that students still pass despite the negligence of other subjects, so long as the proficiency percentage target is reached. Quality of education, as a whole, decreases.

NCLB focuses too much on reading and math.
“Proficiency” becomes so controlled that students who are “proficient” are simply students who are proficient in reading and math, not proficient students in the holistic sense of the word.

“Proficiency” becomes a quota, an end with little care for the means.

Leaving nobody behind

The lawmakers probably had good intentions when they implemented NCLB. They were only trying to improve the quality of education in the United States through an all-inclusive approach, taking into consideration individual characteristics to ensure that such inclusivity be maintained. The partial success of No Child Left Behind may be found here—the US statesmen behind the act may be meaning well, in a way.

At its core, however, their approach is quota-based. Their means themselves, systematic as they are, also resemble the core of the quota. The whole endeavor is one big quest towards a quota, with little care for the travels ahead. The failure of No Child Left Behind is rooted in this reverence of the quota, following very eagerly the traditional conception of what education is: grades, because “good grades make a good life.”

Such a conception of education fails in many regards. Philosophically, education cannot merely act as a means to an end; it should be pursued as an end in itself. This is important for students who seek a satisfying livelihood in the future. Even more so, this is important for statesmen seeking to improve the quality of education in the country. The goal for statesmen pursuing this endeavor must seek to improve not only the country but also the citizens themselves.

Millennia ago, Chinese philosopher Confucius said that the quality of the state all boils down to the citizens, and so he advocated the growth of the individual through virtue and education, not only for the state but for themselves, first of all. This will lead to the prosperity and success of the state. 

Today, Confucius’ point is still relevant. Though it may sound patronizing to speak from common sense on such a serious matter, it must be reiterated that society is made of individuals, and poor individuals make a poor society.

NCLB must genuinely focus on the quality of education so that no child is truly left behind.

The most important point of this line of thinking is the emphasis on the individuals more than society itself as a whole. They are the foundation of society, existing before society itself. Without the individuals, there is no society to speak of. To focus on society first is to use its citizens towards an end that does not necessarily benefit them. And because it wants to “better” itself, it will do so in the most efficient and effective way. At worst, this is dehumanizing.

This does not mean that the failure of No Child Left Behind is caused by its dehumanizing essence, for it does involve assisting financially challenged students in education. But if NCLB truly seeks to improve society, then it should be modified for the sake of its citizens, not for itself. And, again, education does not exist in a vacuum. It is influenced by a multitude of factors. To isolate a few factors towards a specific goal for convenience is a vicious understatement. 

The success of the students, and by extension, the success of an education system, lies not in numbers representing performance, but in the actual performance itself and the happiness of the students. To summarize, if statesmen wish to improve the US education system and be practical about it, they should not focus on improving education just for the country—they should improve it for students everywhere. The improvement of the country will follow naturally.

Learning from the failures of NCLB

If statesmen still hope to pursue the same goals that they had with NCLB, they should do so from a different standpoint. It is not enough to aim to simply raise a singular metric—as if that, alone, determines the quality of education. Of course, it can be conceded that metrics are helpful as a means of quantitatively describing a certain phenomenon. Hence, what is proposed here is another metric: happiness. It is not enough that a student performs well. It should also be the case that he is happy doing so out of passion, not mere compliance to a quota.

An important clarification: “happiness” here is happiness because of education, not in spite of it.

If students were to undergo some measurement, equally as important as "proficiency" is their happiness in the classroom.

Metrics, to be sure, are not completely accurate determinants of phenomena. In the present version of NCLB, “proficiency” is the metric used to determine that a student is performing excellently. In particular, however, it is used to determine that a student is performing well in reading and math, and little in any other class. 

The scenario depicted above, where schools make their students focus only on reading and math, may be extreme, but it is what NCLB will lead to, should it be followed completely. Even the proposed metric of happiness can be faulty. Very likely will it be determined by means of survey or questionnaire, in which case some students may simply give misleading information that might sway towards a particular result.

The purpose of metrics is to have a systematic understanding of specific phenomena. This is already inherently flawed. A metric is a representation of a phenomenon, raw data molded into something else based on a framework. As a representation, it cannot completely replicate a phenomenon. NCLB’s “proficiency” metric, especially, contorts proficiency into something limited and specific.

Another proposal here is something that may be less systematic, but perhaps more accurate and humanizing: instructor involvement. NCLB places great emphasis on the students and tests and little on teachers and institutions—the latter group given notice only when they are not good enough to reach a quota. 

Instructor involvement is measured the feedback of teachers on the performance of students, not only academically but emotionally. Most importantly, it involves the teachers actively engaging with the students outside of academics—not favoring some students, but considering all students. NCLB should not only be concerned with letting financially challenged students excel, but also making them feel welcome in class despite of their financial situation, making sure that no child truly gets left behind.

In this way, the quality of education will be sure to improve, and so will the placement of the United States in the education world rankings, if that is still a concern. One of the best examples: Norway. They do not aim for a quota, yet they are one of the best education systems in the world.

The spirit of education

At this point, education appears complex. That is because it is, and it should absolutely not be taken for granted. The discussion above is not meant to talk about a philosophy of education—so to speak—as the main point of discussion. Rather, it talks about NCLB and whether it succeeded or not. 

But since NCLB is a concern of education, and since it represents a problem of how education is perceived, a proper discussion of education itself should be made, so that any further laws or regulations similar to NCLB may be informed and charged with the true spirit of education. With a possible revision of NCLB proposed, there may be hope for the US education system and financially challenged students in the future, and perhaps true success of No Child Left Behind shall truly be achieved.


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