NCLB: A New Role for the Federal Government


An Overview of the Most Sweeping Federal Education Law Since 1965

Since congress passed the elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, the role of the U.S. government in education has expanded, leading to the bipartisan reauthorization of ESEA in 2001 called the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act - clearly the most dramatic change in national school legislation since ESEA's inception. NCLB moves the federal government from being primarily a source of funding - now about 9% of every public school dollar - to being a major factor in shaping the substance of K-12 instruction.

Proponents argue that the law will boost student achievement, especially among the poor and minority group members for whom ESEA was originally intended, and will bring accountability to states' and districts' use of federal funds. Opponents fear that NCLB's testing mandates and sanctions for school failure will result in student regimentation and parental abandonment of public education.

What no one disputes is that NCLB has completely reshaped federal involvement in American education. This article provides an overview of the new role of the federal government from five important perspectives:

  1. The federalization of education under the law;
  2. The standardization of curriculum, assessment and accountability;
  3. The systemization of education from relative local autonomy to an increasingly state-based, federally supported arrangement that oversees school accountability;
  4. Increased privatization of curriculum and assessment, along with more educational choices for parents; and
  5. The future of public education as we know it, as a result of the NCLB legislation.

To understand the NCLB revolution from these five perspectives, a review of the act's educational and political context is necessary. ESEA, and Title I in particular, were important parts of President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty," which sought to compensate for educational deficits in the lives of the nation's poor and minority children. After the National Commission on Excellence in Education released "A Nation at Risk" in 1983, during the Reagan administration, federal efforts under ESEA aimed to improve the level of education for the general populace and the poor.

When standards-based education policies gained favor in the 1990s, voters began to show frustration with a steady stream of low student test scores and the persistent achievement gap between whites and most minority groups. After running for president on his stated record of test results in Texas, following implementation of proto-NCLB reforms in the state, President George W. Bush introduced No Child Left Behind as his first legislative initiative. The final bill was overwhelmingly backed by both Republicans and Democrats.


Perhaps it is an "only-Nixon-could-go-to-China" irony that, despite traditional Republican positions favoring local school autonomy and small government, a Republican president signed into law NCLB, which not only increased the national regulation of local education, but also meant growth in federal spending of $22.3 billion on schools.

Under NCLB requirements, all students must be tested from grades 3-8 in reading and math (and later science, for certain grades) with test results reported by subgroups (e.g., low-income, African-American, Latino, special education and limited English proficient). Consequently, the federal government has involved itself in the daily operation of schools as never before, requiring schools to demonstrate that students are making adequate yearly progress (AYP). For instance, in a 2002 QED study titled "Teacher Buying Behavior and Attitudes 2001-2002," 61% of K-8 teachers said that their students spend "too much" time on standardized test-taking, while another 44% said the test-taking was having a negative impact on the learning experience in their classrooms. In contrast, only 12% of the surveyed teachers said the effect of this test-taking was positive.

Those schools that fail to show AYP are made known to the public, allowing families to take their dollars and shop for tutoring from approved providers (either private or public), or to transfer to other schools altogether. Further consequences of failure include major changes in school funding, organization and staffing, all designed to create greater choice and equity for disadvantaged children.

As Bush explained, the need for strong measures is critical: "The academic achievement gap between rich and poor, Anglo and minority is not only wide, but in some cases is growing wider still." Or, as Cynthia G. Brown (2002) wrote, "The NCLB Act continues the historic role of promoting equity and equality in elementary and secondary education, but with more money and teeth." For the first time in our history, the federal government is demanding that states set standards; test students; report results by student, type, school and district; and establish consequences for schools that fail to show AYP.


NCLB moves the United States, for the first time, toward a national standard in education based on state-determined standards and tests, along with a set of processes and consequences that are federally mandated. The process is complex, including the setting of state standards; the alignment of standards with curriculum and yearly testing; the determination of pass (proficiency) and advanced levels; and the application of the same standards to all students without regard for race, ethnicity, language or handicapping condition to show AYP based on 2001-2002 benchmarks.

Even though the standards are set at the state level, states compliance toward national standardization will be measured by student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). These test results are compared with state test results to see whether the states are "dumbing down" their tests to look better on national comparisons. If state proficiency levels are upwardly skewed and fail to match student progress on the now-compulsory NAEP, state standards will be found wanting by the U.S. Education Department (ED) and sanctions will be imposed, including statewide withholding of Title I funds. In other words, standards set by the state have to meet standards set at the federal level.

The U.S. Secretary of Education is required to report to Congress on state-by-state progress - focusing on those states that fail to reach standards for two consecutive years. All failing schools will be required to write an improvement plan. These failing schools must also let parents choose whether to restructure these schools as charter or magnet schools, allow students to withdraw, or receive tutoring and other extra services to improve achievement outcomes.

NCLB Observations

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley offered this observation about NCLB: "If we create an accountability system that is more punitive than diagnostic, more about fear than about achieving success, we will have missed the mark entirely. In the broad effort to raise standards, states should not rely on a single high-stakes test. Parents want their children to have a well-rounded education" (Riley 2002).

In a letter to state education officials last October, current U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige sympathized with the discontent that educators feel when change is thrust upon them, offering this rationale for the strong measures that NCLB requires: "As a former superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, I understand the promise and the peril of improving schools. ... The good news is that we know what works: scientifically proven methods, aligned standards, assessments and instruction, school and district leadership focused on student learning, accountability for results, and highly qualified teachers will improve achievement and bring success."


To achieve this level of standardization, the federal government has mandated a large-scale system for creating and maintaining state educational standards, testing and accountability. This arrangement extends from the child to subgroups of children to the school, the district and the state, removing much discretion from the local community and creating a system of control that is quite new to the American education system. Through the use of school report cards, this structure is buttressed by consequences for failure (e.g., reorganization, choice, tutoring, private management and charter schools) and rewards for successful schools, with a 5% increase in federal dollars and a listing as "distinguished."

The trend toward the macro-authority of state and federal mandates, and away from the relatively micro-authority of local governance, has moved much decision-making to the state level under strict federal guidelines that demand institutional solutions, such as:

  • The need for compatible assessment, record-keeping and reporting systems;
  • Evaluation of scientifically based research claims for materials;
  • Approval and tracking of private supplementary service providers;
  • Transportation for the exercise of parental choice; and
  • District, state and federal oversight mechanisms.
  • Privatization

The scope of the systemization, in turn, requires more involvement of the private sector. Indeed, NCLB is unique in its mandatory inclusion of the private sector to assist failing schools with such services as tutoring and private management. It is also unique in its reliance on a private governance model wherein charter schools, which are an option for reorganizing failing traditional schools, are run like publicly funded for-profit and nonprofit corporations.

On another level, the demands for a set of nationally reviewed standards and tests have brought the private sector into the picture as never before. For example, national testing companies are more actively providing states with sets of criterion-referenced tests in reading and math tied to state standards for grades 3-8. While schools and districts have always purchased these materials from the private sector, current NCLB-driven efforts are mandated on a scale and to a degree of specificity that has never existed. NCLB intends to shake up the system and banish what the administration perceives as complacency. It also aims to spend money on what the administration believes matters most, which is holding districts accountable for their students' achievement.

Other newly funded services - such as tutoring, summer programs, distance learning, scientifically based research and new student information systems that report federally mandated data - are also stimulating interest among private providers, as it will be nearly impossible for schools to meet these kinds of demands on their own. In addition, observers and business groups have noted that departments across ED have put out "the welcome mat for commercial research firms and other educational profit makers" in response to the requirements of NCLB (Viadero 2003).

Parents are also given a huge new stake in guiding their children's public education. Title I provides new funds for family literacy and Title V supports a series of parent-empowerment programs, including charter schools and parental assistance centers. Even more powerful are parents' newfound rights to private tutoring or school choice for their children attending failing schools.

The Future of Public Education

Some see NCLB as the death knell of locally controlled public education and the emergence of a federalized "educational-industrial complex" that will standardize what children learn and how they learn it, what happens if they succeed and what happens if students fail, including the extensive privatization of schools. Others believe that this law is the driver for national school improvements, and thus, the salvation of a public education system that has failed recent generations of students, particularly those who are poor and/or of color. So, is this the end of the beginning for U.S. public education, or the beginning of the end, to paraphrase Winston Churchill.

Equally important, will states be able to muster the energy, time, talent and funding to carry out all the complex stipulations of this law, given other pressures and the current fiscal crises? Most states are already lagging behind in implementing NCLB. One year after Bush signed the sweeping education bill into law, states are trying to roll out ambitious standards and testing programs, improve teacher quality, and develop highly detailed report cards, while making it all work together coherently. However, only 12 states so far are on track to comply with even half of the major federal requirements, according to a new report from the Education Commission of the States (ECS).

Although states have a few more years to meet all of the requirements, many were already due. In the first detailed review of progress of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, ECS found that most states have a long way to go to comply with NCLB. (An interactive report, featuring detailed breakdowns of state progress on 40 measures is accessible online at As states face shrinking budgets or near bankruptcy, "many local lawmakers and education officials are complaining that the federal government is saddling schools with dozens of new requirements without providing enough extra money to get the job done" (Toppo 2003).

As the rules and regulations of NCLB get played out in schools nationwide, educators, parents and students will have the last word on how well the new law fulfills its promise to leave no child behind.


Brown, C. 2002. "Opportunities and Accountability to Leave No Child Behind in the Middle Grades." Washington, D.C.: The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. Online:

Riley, R. 2002. "What Matters Most?" American School Board Journal 189 (9): 29. Online: story3.html.

Toppo, G. 2003. "Most States Lag Far Behind 'No Child Left Behind' Law." USA TODAY, 28 January. Online:

Viadero, D. 2003. "Door Open for For-Profit Firms to Bid on Research." Education Week 22 (23): 27.

David C. Bloomfield ([email protected]) is an attorney and associate professor of educational administration and policy at Brooklyn College, a member unit of The City University of New York.

Bruce S. Cooper ([email protected]) is a professor of education and vice chair of the Division of Educational Leadership, Administration & Policy at Fordham University's Graduate School of Education.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.