Life After No Child Left Behind

How Congressional rewrites of the federal education law would—and wouldn’t—solve some of the most pressing issues facing schools

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

No Child Left Behind is really, really unpopular. Roughly three in 10 Americans think the George W. Bush-era federal education law has actually worsened the quality of education, according to a 2012 Gallup poll. The original law on which No Child Left Behind is based—the half-century-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act—was supposed to be renewed nearly a decade ago. Politics just kept getting in the way.

Congress appears poised to finally reauthorize the act and get rid of No Child Left Behind for good. Politicians on Capitol Hill are shooting for a compromise that avoids giving the feds too much clout while ensuring already disadvantaged children don’t get put at an even greater disadvantage. But they have a lot of work ahead of them.

The most promising proposal is a bipartisan bill—the Every Child Achieves Act—that the Senate began debating Tuesday after getting unanimous approval from rather unlikely allies on the education committee, including Rand Paul and Elizabeth Warren. Meanwhile, the House will be taking up a separate proposal to rewrite the law: the GOP-drafted Student Success Act, which was pulled off the floor earlier this year after it failed to garner enough support but could return for a vote as soon as Wednesday.

Both proposals could easily flounder, and senators were already clashing Tuesday over how accountable states should be to the federal government. “It’s far from a slam dunk,” wrote Education Week’s Alyson Klein. The Obama administration said it “can’t support” either of the bills as they stand because they “lack the strong accountability provisions that it is seeking,” according to The New York Times.

Why has No Child Left Behind left such a sour taste in people’s mouths? And how, if at all, would the proposed rewrites make amends?

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, was designed to earmark extra funding for poor students—a program that would give the federal government a much greater role in classrooms. Giving disadvantaged schools an extra boost was certainly a worthy goal; it still is. Unfortunately, “the widespread challenges faced by children from low-income families in America remain extraordinarily difficult to tackle as they continue to struggle with vastly inadequate educational opportunities,” wrote Julian Zelizer, a Princeton history professor, for The Atlantic. The gap in test scores between students from lower- and higher-income families has grown by 40 percent since the 1960s.

Despite its bipartisan roots, No Child Left Behind, Zelizer argued, has done little to reverse those trends. Testing became the centerpiece of education reform, and schools faced harsh sanctions if they didn’t fulfill expectations. Teachers invested more time in test prep and less time in valuable instruction. Schools were shut down were in poor communities. Achievement levels are still greatly uneven.

Here’s a rundown comparing how the current law and proposed legislation (as of Tuesday) address some of the key challenges in American education today:


No Child Left Behind: The law mandates annual testing in math and reading for kids in grades three through eight as well as high school. Schools are expected to show progress in student test scores and face penalties if they don’t.

Every Child Achieves: The law would have the same testing requirements as No Child Left Behind. States would have to make test scores public, including data on how scores break down by race and income.

Student Success: Under this measure, states would be allowed to opt out of federal accountability requirements if they develop their own plans. (Education Week reports that the proposal now includes an amendment that would allow parents to opt their kids out of testing without those zeros counting against schools’ performance rankings.)


No Child Left Behind: The federal government uses test-score benchmarks as the standards against which schools are assessed.

Every Child Achieves: The law would explicitly prohibit the federal government from requiring states use a specific set of standards—i.e., Common Core. However, it would mandate that all states adopt “challenging” math, science, and reading standards that ensure kids are prepared for college or vocational pursuits.

Student Success: Similar to Every Child Achieves, the law would strictly prohibit the federal government from prescribing (or incentivizing states to adopt) standards such as Common Core.

Teacher Evaluations

No Child Left Behind: No Child Left Behind required all teachers to be “highly qualified.” In exchange for waivers from key aspects of law, which a majority of states have sought, the DOE required states to evaluate teachers. These typically rely at least partially on student test scores.

Every Child Achieves: Under this proposal, states wouldn’t be required to evaluate teachers nor use test scores as a metric for assessing them.

Student Success: The law’s stipulations would be similar to those outlined in the Every Child Achieves Act.

Economic Segregation of Schools

No Child Left Behind: Under No Child Left Behind, schools with the highest concentrations of low-income students receive extra funding. The theory is that targeting money at high-poverty schools helps lift them—and their students—out of poverty. But research suggests that the extra funding doesn’t always compensate for the various social disadvantages associated with attending high-poverty schools, such as student and parent engagement and higher teacher expectations.

Every Child Achieves: The Senate proposal would largely retain No Child Left Behind’s funding formula, though the Department of Education is expected to promote provisions that would encourage economic diversity.

Student Success: The bill includes a school-choice provision that would make public money “portable,” allowing it to follow low-income children to different public schools. Democrats tend to oppose this tactic, arguing it would shift money from poor schools to rich ones.

Local Control

No Child Left Behind: The federal government plays a large role in determining what defines a struggling school and prescribes the sanctions applied to such schools.

Every Child Achieves: The law would shift to the states decisions about how test scores are used to assess school and teacher performance. It’d be up to states to determine how to improve struggling schools. This is a major reason civil-rights groups say they don’t support the existing legislation.

Student Success: The law would give states significant control over accountability.