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No Child Left Behind

The passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) marked a sea change in federal education policy by focusing on accountability for results rather than simple compliance with regulations.

By Andrea Messina

The passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) marked a sea change in federal education policy by focusing on accountability for results rather than simple compliance with regulations. Additionally, the law’s requirements for measuring and reporting on the progress of all students disaggregated by subgroups (such as African American, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities, English language learners and others), rather than judging school performance based on school-wide averages, has led us as a nation to focus on the importance of the academic achievement of “other people’s children” in a way that we never have before.

This broader focus, beyond our own kids in our own schools, is not just about idealism—though that is admirable—it is critical to our economy and our nation’s competitiveness in the world. Our country continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for remediation and retraining of high school graduates unprepared for entering higher education and the workplace. Employers continually struggle to fill demanding and highly technical jobs, and students in other nations consistently outperform even our top students on international test comparisons.

NCLB was passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate with strong support from the President. There was broad agreement that high expectations for all, accountability for results, improved teacher quality and options for students stuck in struggling schools were vital for improving student achievement.

Though the law set us on a more productive course and spurred some improvement, it has not been enough. Far too many children are still not achieving to high standards and we are not yet making improvements in struggling schools as effectively or as rapidly as we had hoped. Achievement gaps between white students and racial and ethnic minorities and students with disabilities are still unconscionably large. Many schools with reputations for high quality are not educating all students to high standards.

All of this has spurred both strident opposition to and hardened support for the law. NCLB, and the controversy and support it has generated, has sparked heated conversations around dinner tables, at school board meetings, in state legislatures and in courtrooms. Fortunately, the consensus that produced the impetus to pass NCLB—a widespread commitment to closing achievement gaps and raising the academic achievement of all students—remains. Although the extremes in the debate—those who believe the law is nearly perfect and those who believe it is fatally flawed—attract a great deal of attention, most Americans continue to believe the law’s principles are moving us in the right direction.

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The Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind spent more than a year assessing the strengths and weaknesses of NCLB through an inclusive bipartisan process that included public hearings and roundtable forums across the country and in Washington, D.C. We heard from numerous witnesses representing a wide array of constituencies including policy makers, state and district officials, principals, teachers, experts, parents and others that live with the law every day. As a result of our work, we have concluded that this nation cannot back away from this effort to ensure that all children achieve to high expectations. The challenge for the nation is to learn from NCLB and make adjustments to accelerate progress in creating a high-achieving education system that succeeds for every student, in every school. Following are some highlights of the Commission’s key recommendations to improve the law:

  • Highly Effective Teachers: allow states the flexibility to shift to teacher quality determinations based on effectiveness in improving student achievement in the classroom rather than paper qualifications.
  • Accountability: Refine and strengthen accountability measures to give states the flexibility to credit schools making significant progress in improving student achievement and assure that large numbers of children do not continue to remain “invisible” in state accountability systems.
  • College Ready (and High School Ready) Standards: Encourage states to move more rapidly to adopt college ready standards by creating model national standards for state adoption or comparison.
  • Student Options: Increase participation of eligible children in free tutoring and public school choice options.
  • Strengthened High Schools and Graduation Rate Accountability: Require consistent calculation of graduation rates by states (reported by subgroups) with accountability for closing graduation rate gaps by 2014.

We believe that a reauthorized NCLB that incorporates these important reforms and refinements will ensure that children are academically proficient, are able to meet the demands of good citizenship and have a sense of accomplishment that comes from a high-quality education and the opportunities it affords. We must remain vigilant in raising achievement for all students and closing achievement gaps so that each child can be prepared to succeed in the future and the nation can remain preeminent in the world economy.


Commissioner Andrea Messina is the Chairman of the Charlotte County School Board, Port Charlotte, Florida. She has two sons, ages 13 and 10, who attend Florida’s public schools. To access the Commission’s full report please visit


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