In 2002, President George W. Bush put into motion the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). This act is meant to raise the achievement rates of American students to compete with the world, but more specifically, with the children of low-income and socio-economic minorities, from kindergarten through high school. The difference in educational test results between European-American and African- American students reflects what has come to be known as “the achievement gap”. NCLB is a definitive act by the federal government accountability while attempting to close the educational gap between race and class. What is the achievement gap?
“An achievement gap refers to the observed disparity on a number of educational measures between the performance of groups of students, especially groups defined by gender, race/ethnicity, and socio-economic status.” 
In this writer’s experience, the achievement gap is one of the biggest issues in American education. Aesthetically, it appears that NCLB is closing the achievement gap within the American education system. Despite the argument that it is not well funded, NCLB is being implemented to correct a paradigm of obvious neglect and denial, from deepening the abyss of eventual low-paying jobs and the imprisonment of Black children’s minds and hearts.
The issues of race and the subsequent socio-economic effects are primary factors that have contributed to this gap. One of these issues is that socio-economic and low-income families cannot afford to send their children anywhere else but to a school that is also in poor economic despondency. The funding disparities result in difficulties such as finding good quality teachers to go into tough places, the funding of teachers and materials, and of certain schools in general.
For the kindergarteners in an impoverished area of Camden, New Jersey, author and educator Jonathon Kozol points out that these children enter school with bright expressions, optimistic views and with a fun-loving thirst for knowledge. Then he goes on to say that statistically these little people are at a disadvantage. In a fourth grade reading class African American children are 63 percent below the proficiency level on the New Jersey state assessments, as well as on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, while their white counter parts account for only 23 percent below proficiency level. Within the African American community there is a debate regarding testing; some may rail for parity while others remain fatalistic. Some argue that the measurements are seen as relevant only for persons with access and privilege.
While issues regarding the achievement gap have recently dominated discussions in American education, African Americans have long raised issues regarding their attainment and achievement in public education. In the early years of European settlement, in many places it was illegal for enslaved Africans to obtain an education. They were not permitted to learn. Even though it was illegal for unbeknownst to their slave’s masters they still obtained literacy and formal education. In addition, these enslaved Africans wanted to learn for ‘freedom for literacy and literacy for freedom.’ The African-American philosophy of education was birthed out of the desire to educate one’s self and for people to end slavery.
The African American schools in 1800-1900’s (if there was one) were usually one room with no desk and the teacher handed out paper from her own supply. According to an American education researcher James Anderson, his study points to the disparities between educations provided to whites and black from 1860 to 1935. Plessey v. Ferguson ruled that separate but equal education is constitutional. However, it was not until the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education the Plessey decision was overturned. Integration was the remedy to address the racial disparities in American public education. Today, that situation theoretically should not exist because of integration. But what Brown v. Board of Education legislated and what the present day realities are, still remain two different things. Because of the awareness of the underachievement in this American education, lawmakers implemented legislation to hold educators accountable for the academic achievement of the students. With NCLB, the law for states’ plans says that failure to meet the requirements enacted in 2001 still holds the schools responsible for the development of each child regardless (of race, ethnicity, gender, disability status, migrant status, English proficiency, and status as economically disadvantaged because of race, color or creed.)
Major issues with NCLB include the funding, accountability and wages for all in the education profession. But Republicans, like the Democrats, only want to do what is half right for these communities at risk, and many teachers’ unions are unwilling to make compromises about fiscal accountability to justify salaries. These politics, not funding per se, are often what prevents NCLB from making its full impact in the hearts and minds of children. There are other solutions to address the achievement gap like school choice for children who attend poorly performing schools, vouchers to let children go between school districts and after-school programs with highly qualified teachers.
From this writer’s viewpoint, even though opponents of NCLB may argue against this ‘unfunded mandate’, what the law does do in favor of closing the achievement gap is force financial accountability for educational systems to demonstrate academic progress among all students. So if an economic re-allocation needs to be made among local districts to shore up the needs of more challenged students, then NCLB serves as this catalyst for change. In addition to under-funding at the federal level there is also funding issues at the state level. For instance in Ohio the funding formula for public education has been ruled unconstitutional.
In a February 2007 Newsweek article, reporter Jonathan Alter illustrates this organizational behavioral change in New York state, in which the governor’s budget offers the exchange of more funding for greater accountability.  Another example may be seen in Michigan, where the effect of the NCLB Act boosted the school system to revamp their look and outreach at the Henry Ford Academy.
Yet more still needs to be done. Lynne Cheney, the Vice President’s wife acknowledged:
“When you think of things like the achievement gap in education that separates African-American youngsters from white youngsters, you know we haven’t done enough yet.”
Besides the reconsideration of financial accountability, the NCLB has motivated some civic
leaders, such as New York City Schools Chancellor Joe Klein, on an important new plan to slash the
administrative layers and empower individual schools, thereby putting the onus of responsibility on the
principals of each school:
The idea is to make each principal “the CEO of the school instead of an agent of the bureaucracy,” and he finishes by saying “If your school gets a D or an F, I’m going to fire your ass.”
What NCLB addresses is the need for highly qualified teachers, professional development and to staff hard-to-staff schools. Not only from the review of literature, but also from having been among these underachieving students, it is this writer’s opinion that this type of leadership is required – obtainable retainable, and hopefully – courageous enough to learn new styles for leading others and capable of teaching others. Yes, some people may lose their jobs. But a committed teacher must ask oneself, “Is this JOB really what you want to do? Are you capable of teaching the children left behind? What about the children lost to the prison system that wanted to learn but were forgotten?”
In addition to challenging students to achieve more than what currently may be presented to them, the NCLB challenges teachers to teach. Other successful examples are found in other states such as Texas and Indiana, where changes have made tangible progress towards closing the achievement gap among minority students. In more wealthy districts such as Fort Wayne, Indiana superintendent, Thomas Fowler-Finn and Tom Monaghan of Lanier Middle School in Houston, Texas, collaborate and share information with possibilities of successful solutions. The performance results of these efforts have helped the “zoned” students to climb significantly in academic progress, and the achievement gaps at Lanier have narrowed considerably. Each has tried to reduce gaps and increase student achievement with a number of strategies to enrich lessons of education in mathematics, reading and writing, including after school programs for students that need the assistance.
As to whether the NCLB is working, the responses are varied. For Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, the answer is an unequivocal yes. And she said so in July 2006, when the long-term results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress —“The Nation’s Report Card” (NAEP) were announced. The report demonstrates how change has occurred. But it is more of a case-by-case and school-by-school study of what is working and what is not.
The myriad issues raised by the No Child Left Behind Act are too numerous and much more complex than the scope of this brief paper. But NCLB is meant to address the achievement gap and includes the issues of: highly qualified teacher provisions in schools, instructional leadership, professional development and hard-to-staff schools. This writer has attempted to highlight a few way NCLB attempts to address the gap. While critics may point to what is not working in the short term, in the long term NCLB certainly focuses upon raising the performance standards of inner city or low-income children for whom this act is meant to impact. The wake up call is here.
While many critics and opponents of NCLB may look at how the glass remains half empty, this writer chooses to examine where the glass appears half full:
At the 2005 Annual Meeting of The Cleveland Foundation, special guest speaker of the Gries Lecture, Kati Haycock, director of The Education Trust, reported that in spite of the challenges faced by some schools and students in the impoverished areas of America, simply having high expectations of the students and implementing quality best practices has allowed certain schools and students to flourish academically against the odds. Her presentation was supported by examples from research conducted in schools across America by The Education Trust.
Although one would wish for these examples to become the norm, at least these successes are new beginnings, small inroads of the efforts behind NCLB. Musical artist John Lennon once sang: “Imagine all the people, living life in peace…” In order to reach an educational aesthetic, one must be creative and imagine the best possibilities and outcomes for America’s future.
The No Child Left Behind Act put a spotlight on academic performance to promote a positive effect for uplifting students with disabilities, those who are low-income, or those who have socio-economic disadvantages. While NCLB may not show an immediate turnaround in today’s generation of students, educators should be hopeful about future generations because the long-term goal is student achievement. Its participants – policymakers, citizens, educators, families and students – all have a stake in achieving this self-fulfilling prophecy of No Child Left Behind. Let us not forget what we are working for.
by Georgio Sabino III
- Herbers, John, “Negro Education is Found Inferior: U.S. Public Schools Survey Confirms Racial Disparity, Special to The New York Times, New York Times Archives (1857-Current file). New York, N.Y. Jul 2, 1966.
- Research Center, “Achievement Gap” 2007 <http://www2.edweek.org/rc/issues/achievement-gap/>.
- Closing the Achievement Gap “What is the achievement gap?” http://www.subnet.nga.org/educlear/achievement/.
- Rawe, Julie, “An End to Racial Balancing?” Time Magazine Monday, Dec. 04, 2006 <http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1565925,00.html>:
Even fifty-three years after court-mandated integration through Brown v. the Board of Education, skin color still persists as one of several factors that affects low-income children from attending school in a wealthy district, or even a given neighborhood school system. Now the courts’ dilemma for enforcing NCLB is whether the Equal Protection Clause mandates consideration without regard to race whatsoever.
- Kozol, Jonathan, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (NY: HarperCollins, 1991). p.143
- Kozol, Jonathan, p.143
- Perry, Steele, and Hilliard, Young Gifted and Black (Beacon Press: Boston Inc. 2003) p.60:
According to Ogbu, for some African Americans the IQ test is nothing more than an achievement test that favors the privileged. The test measures experiential learning based upon whatever one was exposed to by way of opportunities, such as going to museums, traveling and other forms of educational enhancements. Thus, because of racial barriers that have precluded socio-economic betterment, the IQ test has been interpreted as part of one’s underserved oppression.
- Perry, Steele, and Hilliard, Part One, pp. 11-51
- Ferguson, Ronald F., Ph.D., What Doesn’t Meet the Eye: Understanding and Addressing Racial Disparities in High-Achieving Suburban Schools, November 2002 <http://www.ncrel.org/gap/ferg/>. p.4:
Amazingly, before NCLB, seldom was there a focus on African-American, Hispanic and low-income students to improve. Now with NCLB, some federal, state and local officials, together with teachers of poor students, the administration of NCLB has been relentless and they have revisited the achievement gap with more scrutiny.
- United States Department of Education, No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 1425 PUBLIC LAW 107–110—JAN. 8, 2002 (Washington: 2001) 20 USC 6311.1457(g)(2), 20 USC 6311.1457(h)(1)(c)(i)
- Alter, Jonathan, “Stop Pandering on Education,” Newsweek Feb. 12, 2007
This writer concurs with much of Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities and there are many examples throughout his book that manifest the impact of these political wrangling on education for this population of underserved students. He cites a principal who illustrates the problem by showing the school structure: “If they first had given Head Start and pre-kindergarten to our children, and materials, and classes of 15 or 18 children in the elementary grades, and computers, and attractive buildings, and enough books and supplies and teacher salaries sufficient to compete with suburban schools, and then come with in a few years later with their test and test demands, it might have been fair play. Instead, they leave us as we are, separate and unequal, under funded with large classes, and with virtually no Head Start, and they think that they can test our children into mechanical proficiency.”
Kozol shows us the truth about funding, policy and staffing inconsistencies without wage improvements. NCLB is trying to address these issues, rapidly, efficiently and successfully, but each element is needed to work in unison for a chance to liberate the children of savage inequalities. In addition, if Americans are not supporting one another regardless of race, gender or creed, then the inequalities in our educational system are increased to the point that they need to be addressed like 911.
- League of Women Voters of the Cincinnati Area,
“Funding Public Education in Ohio: Where are we in the New Century?”
- Alter, Jonathan “Stop Pandering on Education,” Newsweek Feb. 12, 2007
In this national debate over more money for education in exchange for more accountability, Gov. Eliot Spitzer [D-New York] provides his interpretation on the model for each state.
The Michigan State Board of Education increased its elective classes to provide more diverse exposure to global issues, civic engagement, financial literacy and the like. The coursework is designed to heighten student skills. The state legislatures approved the new graduation rules, starting with next fall’s freshman class, and are considered to be among the most rigorous in the country, according to Michael Cohen, president of the nonprofit education think tank, Achieve Inc.
- Steptoe, Sonja, Building a New Student in Michigan Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2006 <http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1568853-1,00.html>. p.1:
In general, most boards of education mission statements across the country have wanted to have rigorous requirements that reflect diverse cultures and international issues, to teach finance and business principles and to improve critical-thinking, problem-solving and communication abilities through team projects.
- Cooper, Matthew, “10 Questions for Lynne Cheney Sunday,” Time Magazine Oct. 16, 2005
- Alter, Jonathan “Stop Pandering on Education,” Newsweek Feb. 12, 2007
- Rothman, Robert, Closing the Achievement Gap: How Schools Are Making It Happen The Journal of the Annenberg Challenge Winter 2001/02 Volume 5, number 2 <http://annenberginstitute.org/Challenge/pubs/cj/cjv5n2.pdf:
This journal article demonstrates state examples such as in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Houston, Texas, which have adopted a number of initiatives to reduce gaps in school climate, discipline, and student achievement. The impact has been considerable in improving these disparities.
- American Federation of Teachers, “NCLB—Let’s Get It Right,” <http://www.aft.org/topics/nclb/index.htm>.
- Education Vital Signs 2006 “Education Vital Signs,” Supplement to American School Board Journal, ©2006 National School Boards Association. p.16 <http://www.asbj.com/evs/06/NCLB.html>.
- United States Department of Education, No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 1425 PUBLIC LAW 107–110—JAN. 8, 2002(Washington: 2001) 20 USC 6516.1606(a)(3)
- Attendance at The Cleveland Foundation Annual Meeting, Gries Lecture, June 15, 2005.
- Lennon, John, Imagine, Capitol, September 9, 1971