NCLB: Less Than Meets the Eye, More Than Nothing

Given all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth, one would think that NCLB was a crushing burden on the school system.

In actuality NCLB demands very little. It only requires that states wishing to receive Title I funds have to establish goals for student success, select tests for measuring progress towards those goals, and report results from those tests broken out by subgroups.

The sanctions for failing to make progress toward those goals are almost non-existent. Schools failing to make progress have to offer tutoring or allow students to transfer to better-performing public schools in the same district (if one can be found). But, as we have previously discussed on this blog and in this article, there is widespread non-compliance with even these minimal sanctions. Too often schools fail to inform parents properly of their options under NCLB or direct students into their own tutoring programs, resulting in very few students taking any resources out of their local school, let alone district. Without placing school funds in jeopardy, the only possible sanction is public embarrassment. And that plus $4 will get you a latte at Starbucks.

I do not believe that a single tenured teacher out of the more than 3 million teachers currently working in public schools has been fired, experienced a pay-cut, or otherwise been meaningfully sanctioned because of NCLB. I do not believe that a single student out of the 50 million enrolled in public schools has been held back a grade, been denied a diploma, or otherwise been meaningfully sanctioned as a result of NCLB. (Some states have retention and graduation requirements as part of their state accountability systems, but those policies are not required for NCLB.) Yes, chronically failing schools might eventually face “restructuring” but that is likely to be yet more bark and no bite. Next they’ll be put on double secret probation.

So what supports complaints about “pressure cooker NCLB testing,” or “NCLB-post traumatic stress disorder,” or other “NCLB outrages”? If NCLB has almost no real consequences for teachers or students, what is all of the fuss about? The overwrought reaction seems to have more to do with a political campaign over the future direction of education policy than the actual effects of the current policy.

The most important future policy that the higher volume of squealing is meant to influence is increasing education spending. A center-piece of the complaints about NCLB is that it is an unfunded mandate. Let’s leave aside the fact that federal spending on education has increased 41% since passage of NCLB. And let’s leave aside that NCLB is not actually a mandate, since states do not have to comply with NCLB if they do not want Title I funds (which have increased 59% since 2001).

Besides neither being unfunded nor a mandate, the argument that NCLB is an unfunded mandate is especially odd because it makes one wonder what all of the funding that schools received before NCLB was for. It’s as if the unfunded mandate crowd is saying: “The $10,000 per pupil we already get just pays for warehousing. If you actually want us to educate kids, that’ll cost ya extra.” Remember, that NCLB just asks states to establish and meet their own goals. Didn’t they have goals before NCLB?

While NCLB demands much less than the overwrought rhetoric about it suggests, it does not demand nothing. Most importantly, NCLB entrenched the idea that we should take regular measures of student achievement and report the results, including results for subgroups. Even this is a smaller thing that it may seem at first glance since 37 states had already adopted state testing and accountability systems before passage of NCLB. But NCLB brought the laggard states on-board to this growing national consensus that we ought to have some systematic measures of how our students are doing. It also made reversal of this growing testing and accountability culture more difficult by placing it in federal as well as state law.

Greg Forster has already made the case for why this shift under NCLB has been important, so I will not repeat it here. I would just emphasize that the controversy over NCLB is not really about what NCLB does, but about the broader policy shift that it represents and the extra funding that folks hope they may get as they acquiesce to that policy shift.

26 Responses to NCLB: Less Than Meets the Eye, More Than Nothing

  1. matthewladner says:

    The fans demand a picture of Dean Wormer with any and all references to “double secret probation.”

  2. I can’t let the fans down, so it’s been added.

  3. Jolly good, carry on!

  4. Ryan Marsh says:

    The NCLB Outrages link is my favorite. You know, passing laws to prevent theft leads to more people convicted as thieves. Why aren’t we demanding changes in laws against theft?

  5. Jim Vining says:

    The number 1 value of NCLB is to label schools failing to justify vouchers….. NCLB should require an already established test (NAEP) for all schools – and since this is a National Issue, this should include Private and Home Schooled. Schools should be compared subgroup to subgroup and star performers should be recognized. Transfers, or vouchers, should be allowed when the child’s subgroup is failing (the assumption being that the new school is passing in that subgroup).

  6. I don’t think vouchers need NCLB for justification.

  7. Greg Forster says:

    Ha! Wish I’d thought of that first.

  8. tft says:

    But NCLB is a way to justify vouchers. So, Jim is correct, and you are just off topic.

  9. Greg Forster says:

    Well, whether NCLB is or is not a way to justify vouchers, the observation that vouchers don’t need NCLB for justification is hardly off topic on a thread about NCLB.

  10. tft says:

    Off topic in terms of a response to Jim’s point, that NCLB is a labeling mechanism.

  11. tft says:

    I love this, um, sentence:

    Besides neither being unfunded nor a mandate, the argument that NCLB is an unfunded mandate is especially odd because it makes one wonder what all of the funding that schools received before NCLB was for.

    Great sentence structure, prof!

  12. Wow. Me make tft angry. Too angry to make substantive argument.

  13. tft says:

    Angry? Amused, yes. Angry, no. You removed my c/p comment from your book page. Can’t handle it? It must be tough to be a tool of Corporate America. You do bidding for the right, you want to dismantle public education, and you have trouble writing sentences that make sense. Wow!

    And about the substantive argument–are we arguing? Please fill me in on your position, and then I might be able to figure out what you are talking about.

    I have made 2 criticisms here on your blog. The first was that you avoided a commenter by responding to something he did not say. The second was my criticism of your sentence in your post, which you must admit, is a bad sentence. Was this the argument you are referring to? Because, well, it is not an argument. I think you might just be a moron!

    Thanks for visiting my blog!

  14. Ryan says:

    I do not believe that a single student out of the 50 million enrolled in public schools has been held back a grade, been denied a diploma, or otherwise been meaningfully sanctioned as a result of NCLB. (Some states have retention and graduation requirements as part of their state accountability systems, but those policies are not required for NCLB.)

    That’s just intellectually dishonest, akin to arguing that since the Patriot Act doesn’t mandate you take off your shoes that it must be the airports making people go barefoot. It’s clear that even if NCLB doesn’t order grade retention, the practical effect is that holding kids back is one way to achive the goals.

  15. tft says:

    Ryan makes a great point above.

    Jay, your claims about sanctioning kids I just don’t get. The sanctions implicit in NCLB are sanctions on schools and districts. They include curriculum changes, intervention changes, and other macro-type sanctions. You argued against something that wasn’t there! This is the same tactic you used against Jim above when you decided to ignore his comment, and comment on something else already taking up most of the space in your tiny head.

    I would love to see one on your side of this issue spend a few days in a public school. You should, according to your rhetoric, be able to produce much better test results from the students than I can. If you are so sure you are right, go do it! Save American Public Education! Go for it! But, you won’t. You can’t do any better. In fact, stay away from the children.

  16. matthewladner says:


    I don’t know where you are from, but I live in a state where 44 percent of public school students score “below basic” on 4th grade NAEP reading test. NAEP predates and has nothing to do with NCLB, but the point is, the public school system isn’t working whether we label schools or not.

    Personally, I’m not a big fan of NCLB, as you can see by fishing around on this blog. If someone wants to use the process of labeling of schools as a part of trying to improve upon 44% of the kids in my state not learning how to read I’m game. If that process offends some adults in the system, as it apparently does you, color me relatively unconcerned. We spend money on public schools to teach kids, not to coddle the feelings of adults.

  17. Ryan says:

    matthew: I don’t disagree that there are failing schools; I’m just not sure that the NAEP is the best judge of whether a school is failing. I tend to have more faith in state level assessments based off of state level standards, and while that system is certainly ripe for shenanigans it’s the one that I’ve been able to watch the most. With the NAEP I don’t know what standards the test is written to, nor am I able to make school-to-school comparisons.

    If you want to really frustrate a group of teachers, tell them to get the NAEP scores up. They’ll run you out of town on a rail.

  18. tft says:

    matthewlander, you can easily check where I’m from. Did I say something about the NAEP? I don’t remember that. If your talking about my reference to labeling, it was a characterization of another poster’s comment referring to NCLB’s function as a way to label schools and teachers failures so the whole thing can be privatized. It’s working!

    As for the below basic problem, with which I sympathize, in my district we just instituted ULSS and have decided that the first level of intervention (not tier!) is the classroom. In other words, the kids who need intervention services “funded” by NCLB, just get their teacher.

    But we could just opt out, right?

    You come from Arizona?

  19. Ryan-

    The evidence doesn’t begin and end with NAEP, although NAEP equates pretty readily with international exams of proficiency. See for instance this 2006 American Institutes for Research study of the literacy skills of American college students that finds More than 75 percent of students at 2-year colleges and more than 50 percent of students at 4-year colleges do not score at the proficient level of literacy, meaning that they lack the skills to perform complex literacy tasks, such as summarizing the arguments of newspaper editorials:


    I’m not sure what you define as a privatized school, but the total percentage of American students who attend them would be extremely modest regardless of how you define it.

    I brought up NAEP (and now AIR) simply to make the point that we have severe education problems that existed before NCLB, and that NCLB has partially made more transparent (so far). The state of Florida has had success with a comprehensive education reform that included the grading of schools (among a lot of other things) and their percentage of students scoring basic or better went from 53 percent in 1998 to 70 in 2007.

  20. […] call it an “unfunded mandate,” notes Jay Greene. But what did schools think they were supposed to be doing pre-NCLB? Surely, they were trying to teach reading and math all along, he points out. Let’s […]

  21. Margo/Mom says:


    This is an important piece of truthtelling as the death of NCLB has already been hearkened as the next silver bullet to save American Education.

    I don’t know if I can add anything to get this discussion back to a more intellectual level–but I do think that we seriously need to stick to “just the facts ma’am,” and stay away from the conspiracy theories about vouchers and the old fall back, “why don’t you spend a few days in a public school.” In fact I have spent more than a few days–as a substitute teacher. The things that I saw convinced me of the unevenness of the skills and ability of teachers from building to building, of the factors that build a learning environment and of basic respect for students, parents and the community in which they live.

    Each year that passes without substantive reform (and recall that the United States leads the world in our commitment of financial resources to education) is a year in the life of a child, a year that cannot be replaced, a year that is increasingly difficult to remediate as time goes one. We don’t have time for all this denial of the problems.

  22. Margo/Mom — Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

  23. […] NCLB: Less Than Meets the Eye, More Than Nothing at Jay P. Greene’s Blog NCLB is neither being unfunded nor a mandate.  It’s as if the unfunded mandate crowd is saying: “The $10,000 per pupil we already get just pays for warehousing. If you actually want us to educate kids, that’ll cost ya extra.” […]

  24. Brendan says:

    Some deceptive misconceptions.
    First, most schools that had testing prior to NCLB only tested in specific years. Meaning a student would be tested in certain subjects only once every few years.
    Second, standardized tests are enormously expensive. From what I understand that is considered the unfunded portion of NCLB.
    Third, Title I money is usually a huge portion of the funding for many low SES schools. To take that away would force many of those schools to close. So in effect it is a mandate for many of our poorest schools.
    I don’t have a problem with asking for accountability for teachers. I have a problem with the way that this so called accountability is measured.

  25. Brendan makes a fair point that accountability testing prior to NCLB often did not cover as many grades. But that sounds like a bad thing to me since educators would lack information about the year-to-year progress students are making (or not making). Regardless of whether you want to attach consequences to testing, shouldn’t educators want to be able to track how individual students are doing over time, just like how doctors track basic measures of health (weight, height, blood pressure, etc…)?

    And Brendan is simply wrong in claiming that “standardized tests are enormously expensive.” Caroline Hoxby has calculated that testing costs, on average, $5.81 per pupil, or less than one-tenth of one percent of school spending. See .

    Lastly, total federal spending amounts to just 8% of school spending, including federal contributions to special ed, ELL, Title I, etc… If the financial (or educational) burden of complying with NCLB were so great, states could opt out. The fact that they don’t suggests that they receive more than they spend.

  26. […] education spending has increased by 41 percent since the passage of No Child Left […]

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