Left Behind

I read an illuminating and provocative essay recently about how, and why, the No Child Left Behind Act has failed—and I thought it worth sharing in this space.  It happens to have been written by my older son, Nate Dolin, as a paper for his Junior year history class.  He became interested in this issue having volunteered in several public elementary school classrooms, having worked with special needs/autism spectrum children and tutoring kids who struggle in their public middle school… and having been faced with numerous inequities, subsequently found himself wondering why things are as they are.

So, if we want our kids to be encouraged to consider growing up to help, perhaps even to step up and educate, the next generation of kids… our future grand children, we are well-served to deepen our understanding of why things may be as they are.


Left Behind

The No Child Left Behind act seeks to leave no child behind in terms of academics, but the intentions of the act will never be met.  Even though President Bush claimed that the act was having a “dramatic effect” in 2008, the average white student scored 28 points higher on the reading section than the average African American student, and 26 points higher on the math section.[i]  Since the White students are obviously not inherently smarter than the African American student, what is causing the immense score gap?  Is every child in America really treated equally?  If society believes all children should have an equal opportunity for education, why are the most disadvantaged children being left behind, why is excessive testing proving to be more harmful than beneficial, why can’t the “supposed” intentions of the act be met, and why do some argue that the act was intended to benefit the economy rather than the children?

As unfortunate as it is, money has a giant impact on education, and for this reason the rich are able to dominate the public school system and are able to skew the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act so that it benefits the economy and large businesses more than it does the children attending public schools.[ii]  Despite whatever the NCLB act claims about education and academic excellence, it is argued that the NCLB’s public statements about improving education were primarily made to mask the economics intentions of the NCLB act.[iii]  After multiple years of being deemed a “school needing improvement,” a school is forced to bring in free after school tutoring for the kids.[iv]  Since the standardized tests usually become more difficult every year, some people are very skeptical about the act, including Arne Duncan, who estimated, “four out of every five of the nation’s 100,000 public schools are likely to receive failing grades under the NCLB act in 2011.”[v] Because of this huge companies such as Sylvan are able to make tons and tons of money.[vi]  Shortly after the act was passed Sylvan claimed that its profits had doubled from the previous year.[vii]  This is incredible considering that Sylvan is a nation-wide company that was already successful prior to the NCLB act being passed.  Also, if public schools fail to pass annual exams for enough years in a row, the schools essentially get into a lot of trouble, and have to fire all the teachers and faculty and completely start over again, or merely turn into a private school.[viii]  Most private schools make profits, and this again is beneficial to the economy.  Unfortunately, when such an emphasis is put on the well being of the economy, the well being of hard-working teachers is often forgotten.  With all the emphasis on passing tests, public school teachers across America are forced to “worry more about raising tests scores than promoting meaningful learning.”[ix]  Teachers, therefore, must use valuable class time teaching their classes how to fill in bubbles rather than how to think critically and analytically.  A study showed that many kids, who had mastered the art of choosing the correct bubble, were “unable to express themselves, particularly when asked a question that required them to think about and explain what they had read on the test.”[x]  This narrow-minded way of educating is not only wasting public school teacher’s abilities to teach kids ways of critically thinking and analyzing that could be useful later in life, but it’s useless and disrespectful to teachers who want to teach more than the highly praised skill of filling in bubbles.[xi]

After many years of the NCLB act, many states learned about and seemingly unfairly took advantage of the immense leeway and personal standards that they were allowed to hold their schools to.  The NCLB act does not adequately fund schools to a level needed for optimal success, and schools know that if they are “in need of improvement” the NCLB will, ironically, not help them, and will merely force the school to use its funds to bring in tutoring programs that aren’t affiliated with the school.[xii]  It is clear that no school wants to have their funds deducted, but in order to make sure this doesn’t happen, many states have decided to lower the difficulty of their exams so that they can claim to be “improving” and “showing success,” and maintain their funding which wasn’t even enough to start out with.[xiii]  For the officials in charge, lowering the difficulty of the tests so that the students succeed “is reminiscent of shooting an arrow into a wall and then drawing the target around it.”[xiv] By  lowering the bar our schools are able to superficially succeed.

The NCLB’s goals can never be met because they are ridiculous in that the intentions of the act are border-line impossible to achieve.  By just 2014, the act claims that every student in America will be “academically proficient,” hence the name No Child Left Behind.[xv]  When the act says “every” child it is being dead serious, and therefore claims that special needs children, children who don’t speak English, and children growing up in rough neighborhoods where education is not valued are all going to be academically proficient by 2014.[xvi]

The NCLB act aims to diversify America’s many cultures, but it has done the opposite.  With all the new private schools being built, the wealthy class is becoming more and more tempted to turn to private education.[xvii]  Even if a family’s individual child is doing fine on the standardized tests, the child’s family may still be wary of the school their child attends, if it is considered a “failing school.”  The family and their child may either choose to turn to private education, or move to a neighborhood in which the public school is better, and this neighborhood will probably be a wealthier neighborhood than their current one.  When a school is “failing” or “in need of improvement” the teachers are immediately and unjustly blamed for their student’s low marks on their standardized exams.[xviii]  Some public school teachers are frequently given students who don’t even speak English, or possibly some students that have disabilities, and are inherently a couple years behind their classmates.  The NCLB act shows no mercy to these children, and forces them to take the standardized tests, and if they refuse the NCLB counts their scores as zeros.[xix]

The importance of having driven and achieving peers is often overlooked, and sometimes even forgotten.  Having smart, bright, interested and driven classmates seems nearly imperative to achieving excellence at an elementary school level.[xx]  This is because students are inclined to act as their friends act, and therefore a student surrounded by other students who care about their work is much more likely to succeed at school than a kid who lives in the ghetto and is made fun of for even attempting to do homework.[xxi]  After a school is deemed “in need of improvement” for multiple years, the school is supposed to offer every attending child the option to switch to a more successful school, and if the child accepts the school must also provide adequate transportation to and from school for the child.[xxii]  It would seem as if many children would capitalize on this opportunity, but in California ninety-nine percent of students offered the chance to attend a better school declined the offer.  This high rate of children declining the opportunity seems very odd, and could be because of multiple reasons.  The first reason is that a “school in need of improvement” doesn’t want to spend money on transporting a child who doesn’t even attend their school to a different location, but rather use the little money and resources that they have on improving their own school.  A second speculated reason is that people just don’t care enough about education to want their child to switch schools.[xxiii]  A final is that some cultures look down upon education, and many students find themselves “swimming in a tide of popular culture” where “even middle-class students are influenced by a culture that says it’s simply not cool to be smart.”[xxiv]

In conclusion, the NCLB provides minimal support to schools in relation to the destruction that it is causes across America, regardless of if the act actually has good intentions that just don’t work, or if the act was passed so that specific businesses could flourish, the act is not succeeding.  Many issues with the act include: leaving special-needs kids, and kids who don’t speak English behind, failure to repair the racial score gap on tests, and the fact that the act gives schools way too much leeway to create their own “proficiency” standards.


1.  Sam Dillon, ‘No Child” Law Is Not Closing a Racial Gap.  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/29/education/29scores.html

2 Deborah Meier and others, Many Children Left Behind: How The No Child Left Behind Act Is Damaging Our Children and Our Schools (Boston: Beacon Press,2004), 97.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Diane Ravitch, The Death And Life Of The Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books, 2010),

[v] “No Child Left Behind Act,” New York Times, March 10, 2010, http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/n/no_child_left_behind_act/index.html.

[vi] Meier, Many Children Left Behind, 87.

[vii] Ibid., 87.

[viii] Ravitch, The Death And Life Of The Great American School System, 97.

[ix] Meier, Many Children Left Behind, 79.

[x] Ravitch, The Death And Life Of The Great American School System, 108.

[xi] Ibid., 97.

[xii]  Scott Franklin Abernathy, No Child Left Behind And The Public Schools: Why NCLB will fail to close the achievement gap-and what we can do about it (Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 2010), 109.

[xiii] Meier, Many Children Left Behind, 82.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Nanette Asimony, “State falling way behind No Child Left Behind,” Sf Gate, September 5, 2008, http://articles.sfgate.com/2008-09-05/news/17158335_1_test-scores-student-testing-adequate-yearly-progress.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Meier, Many Children Left Behind, 80.

[xviii]  Ravitch, The Death And Life Of The Great American School System, 108.

[xix] Abernathy, No Child Left Behind And The Public Schools, 7.

[xx] Ibid., 30.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Abernathy, No Child Left Behind And The Public Schools, 7.

[xxiii] Sam Dillon, ‘No Child” Law Is Not Closing a Racial Gap.  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/29/education/29scores.html.

[xxiv] Ibid.


Abernathy, Scott Franklin. No Child Left Behind and the Public Schools: why NCLB will fail to        close the achievement gap- and what we can do about it. Michigan: the University of Michigan, 2007.

Asismov, Nanette. “State falling way behind No Child Left Behind.” Sf Gate, September 5, 2008. http://articles.sfgate.com/2008-09-05/news/17158335_1_test-scores-student-testing-adequate-yearly-progress

Dillon, Sam. “’No Child’ Law Is Not Closing A Racial Gap.” New York Times, April 28, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/29/education/29scores.html

Meier, Deborah. Many Children Left Behind. Massachussets: Beacon Press, 2004.

“No Child Left Behind Act.” New York Times, March 10, 2010. http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/n/no_child_left_behind_act/index.html

Ravitch, Diane. The Death And Life Of The Great American School System: How Testing And   Choice Are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books, 2010.


Many thanks to Nate for allowing me to share this with you.  Here’s to making the choice ourselves to leave none of us behind.

Namaste, BD & NateD


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11 Responses to “Left Behind”

  1. rebecca @ altared spaces Says:

    I do wonder if we are heading for a new sort of segregated schools. I’ve always valued public education, mostly for the public piece of the pie. My children’s educations have largely centered on the people with whom they need to interact and learn to solve problems with. When we abandon the institutions because they’re not working… the working stops.

  2. Katrina Kenison Says:

    Not only did I learn much that I didn’t know from this terrific paper, I also saw in it the profound connection between a wise, thoughtful father and a son who has inherited an equally curious mind and compassionate heart. This was both a treat and an education; thank you both for sharing. And hats off to a terrific piece of research and writing.

  3. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I think I like your kid. And I worry about the nonsensical approach of our (well-intentioned?) lawmakers.

  4. Sulyn Says:

    As a teacher I appreciate the viewpoint of a student on NCLB. Most teachers I know think it is rhetoric that has turned our schools into “result” and not process oriented establishments. I teach in career & technical education and not all my students achieve at the same level, despite the fact that they all get the same experience. Obviously this is because all students are individuals and come from different environments and have different learning styles and abilities. At any time in history or other nation has 100% of the population been academically proficient? As my Dad always said “the world needs brick layers” and there is nothing wrong with that if at the end of the day the person feels they have done their best and contributed to the world. I believe every student I have has something to bring to the table. Will they all be college students? Heavens no, and that is no guarantee of success.

  5. Pamela Says:

    Wow. Is your son a junior in college or high school? What a thoughtful and well-written paper. This is really, really impressive.

    I was not all that familiar with the specifics of NCLB and this succinct article was jam-packed with great – and usable – information. What a great future your son has before him!!

  6. Beth K Says:

    The paper is well-researched and well thought out. One of my many concerns about the war on public education in the US is that many of today’s children, through no fault of their own, may not grow up to be critically-thinking and engaged citizens. It’s nice to see that Nate is already an excellent citizen.
    Congrats, Nate, on your volunteer work and your paper!

  7. meaganfrank Says:

    It matters so much that someone as compassionate, curious and intelligent as your son notices the despairing differences between the haves and the have-nots. I hope for many, many more thinkers like him…and maybe, just maybe, real changes can be made. Good job dad…and son!

  8. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    Your kid rocks. And so do you.

  9. Amber Says:

    I have researched NCLB myself and came to the exact same conclusions. NCLB was a well-intended educational act that has left a horrible mark on public schools. But, unfortunately, before NCLB came along things were still segregated. Think about it–with public school funding coming from property taxes, the neighborhoods that are more wealthy will have better schools. So? Who is the loser? Yeah, those who live in poverty. It’s sad to state that we have yet to resolve the civil rights issue. In fact, we have even more to solve now that we have placed African Americans in ghettos.

  10. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Hi Bruce & Nate,

    Thanks for sharing your research and conclusions on NCLB.

    As a teacher, I saw firsthand the ways in which NCLB failed our students. Teachers shifted their curricula in order to help their kids pass standardized tests, students with special needs were often taught testing tactics rather than being supported in their areas of difference, and, as you noted, wealthy parents opted out of the draconian and failing system, placing their kids in private schools where content and understanding took precedence over testing.

    As a parent, I wonder what choice I will make. I live in a lower income community and our schools demonstrate the problems that come with tying educational spending to property taxes. Will I support those schools by sending my kids there and becoming actively involved in improving them? Or will I send my kids to private school?

    Time will tell.

    Thanks to both of you for sharing this piece. (As a former high school social studies teacher, I’d give this essay an A.)

  11. Cathy Says:

    Nate is a wise person. My degree is in secondary education (although I’ve never taught) but I know during my years in school and student teaching semester, teaching for the test and “dumbing down” for the lowest possible denominator were issues then – 20 years ago. The NCLB just formalized the requirement.

    I live in California and the state of education here is deplorable. They have this funky system where the more your school’s test scores improve, the more funding you get. Well I happen to live (by choice) in one of the top school districts in the state. We are routinely in the top 1% of all schools. This is great, but it also means that we are a low-wealth school district. Of all the schools in CA, we get the least amount of money per student. If we want to equalize education, why is there such disparity in the funding? Crazy.

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