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No Child Left Behind (NCLB) refers to a 2001 law that was  the most recent iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), the major federal law authorizing federal spending on programs to support K-12 schooling. ESEA is the largest source of federal spending on elementary and secondary education.


ESEA was enacted in 1965 as part of the Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty campaign. The law’s original goal, which remains today, was to improve educational equity for students from lower income families by providing federal funds to school districts serving poor students. School districts serving lower income students often receive less state and local funding than those serving more affluent children.

Since its initial passage in 1965, ESEA has been reauthorized seven times, most recently in January 2002 as the No Child left Behind Act. Each reauthorization has brought changes to the program, but its central goal of improving the educational opportunities for children from lower income families remains. The 1994 reauthorization, the Improving America’s Schools Act, put in place key standards and accountability elements for states and local school districts that receive funding under the law. These accountability provisions were further developed in the most recent reauthorization, the No Child Left Behind Act.

NCLB and Accountability

Although NCLB covers numerous federal education programs, the law’s requirements for testing, accountability, and school improvement receive the most attention. NCLB requires states to test students in reading and mathematics annually in grades 3-8 and once in grades 10-12. States must test students in science once in grades 3-5, 6-8, and 10-12. Individual schools, school districts and states must publicly report test results in the aggregate and for specific student subgroups, including low-income students, students with disabilities, English language learners, and major racial and ethnic groups.

NCLB requires states, school districts, and schools to ensure all students are proficient in grade-level math and reading by 2014. States define grade-level performance. Schools must make “adequate yearly progress” toward this goal, whereby proficiency rates increase in the years leading up to 2014. The rate of increase required is chosen by each state. In order for a school to make adequate yearly progress (AYP), it must meet its targets for student reading and math proficiency each year. A state’s total student proficiency rate and the rate achieved by student subgroups are all considered in the AYP determination.

 No Child Left Behind

Source: Wisconsin Department of Education; New America Foundation

ESEA Flexibility and Waivers

However, Wisconsin – along with 44 other states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Bureau of Indian Education – applied for a waiver from these targets and other NCLB requirements from the Department of Education. In September 2011, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that the administration would allow states to request flexibility in meeting some of the requirements under NCLB in the absence of the law’s reauthorization.

Requirements that the Department of Education offered to waive include states meeting AYP targets whereby students must reach 100 percent student proficiency by 2014 in reading and math, and mandated interventions, whereby districts must allow students to attend different schools and offer Supplemental Educational Services for Title I schools and school districts failing to meet the AYP targets. The waivers also allowed states to opt out of mandatory interventions for districts failing to meet requirements to staff only ‘Highly Qualified Teachers’ in their schools.

In order to receive flexibility through a waiver, states needed to demonstrate that they had adopted or would implement a series of reforms to their academic standards, student assessments, and accountability systems for schools and educators. Specifically, the Department required states to implement 1) college- and career-ready standards and assessments that measure student achievement and growth; 2) a differentiated accountability system that both recognizes high-achieving, high progress schools (reward schools) and supports chronically low-achieving schools (priority and focus schools); and 3) teacher and principal evaluation and support systems to improve instruction. A team of peer reviewers, along with Department staff, studied the proposals, commented on each request, and offered suggestions to states to help them win approval.

Since February 2012, 34 states and Washington, D.C. have been granted waivers, which will be in effect until the end of the 2013-14 school year, when states will have the opportunity to extend their waivers for another two years. For states without waivers, NCLB remains in full effect.

States have struggled with implementing the policies outlined in their waiver agreements with the Department of Education. Just like the provisions in NCLB that the waivers allow states to escape, reforms states set in motion using waivers have been controversial. Some constituencies have objected to the new policies. These include the new Common Core State Standards and assessments many states have adopted; the annual student achievement targets that states have set (which are often different for historically disadvantaged groups of students); states’ new systems for measuring school quality and/or identifying schools for improvement; and states’ plans to implement teacher and principal evaluations based in part on student test scores. Despite these difficulties, it appears likely that waivers will continue to serve as de facto federal policy until NCLB is reauthorized.

School Improvement, Corrective Action, and Restructuring

Schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress for two consecutive years are identified for “school improvement,” and must draft a school improvement plan, devote at least 10 percent of federal funds provided under Title I of NCLB to teacher professional development. Schools that fail to make AYP for a third year are identified for corrective action, and must institute interventions designed to improve school performance from a list specified in the legislation. Schools that fail to make AYP for a fourth year are identified for restructuring, which requires more significant interventions. If schools fail to make AYP for a fifth year, they much implement a restructuring plan that includes reconstituting school staff and/or leadership, changing the school’s governance arrangement, converting the school to a charter, turning it over to a private management company, or some other major change.

School districts in which a high percentage of schools fail to make AYP for multiple years can also be identified for school improvement, corrective action, and restructuring.

NCLB School Improvement Timeline

Years Not Making AYP
OneNo Action
TwoNo Action
ThreeYear One of School Improvement
Implement Public School Choice
FourYear Two of School Improvement
Continue offering public school choice. Implement Supplemental Education Services
FiveCorrective Action
Continue offering school choice and supplemental education services
SixRestructuring Planning Year
Continue offering school choice and supplemental education services
SevenImplement Restructuring
Source: Elementary and Secondary Education Act

Parent Information, School Choice, Supplemental Educational Services

NCLB requires school districts to provide immediate assistance to children attending schools in need of improvement, in the form of public school choice and supplemental educational services.

The first year that a school is in school improvement (after it fails to make AYP for two consecutive years), the school district must offer children the option to transfer to a higher-performing school in the same district. The second year a school is in school improvement, the district must also offer children the option to receive supplemental educational services—tutoring and other outside-of-school services designed to improve academic achievement. School districts must spend up to 20 percent of their federal NCLB Title I funds on public school choice and supplemental services for students in schools identified for school improvement.

NCLB seeks to empower parents by providing them with information about how students, schools, and school districts are performing. NCLB requires that states and local school districts disseminate to parents annual school report cards describing their student and school performance. Local school districts must also produce and distribute to parents a report card for each individual school.

State, school district, and school report cards must include the following information:
* Percentage of students scoring at each proficiency level on the state assessment, in the aggregate and disaggregated by subgroup
* Comparison of student performance to state’s annual goals for AYP and, for schools and districts, to statewide and local averages
* Percentage of students not tested
* Two-year trends in student achievement
* Other indicators used by the state for AYP
* High school graduation rates
* Teacher qualifications, including the percentage of classes taught by teachers who are not highly qualified
* For states and school districts, number and names of schools identified for school improvement
* For schools, whether or not the school is identified for school improvement

Highly Qualified Teachers

No Child Left Behind requires all teachers be highly qualified. All teachers must be fully certified by the state or have passed the state teacher licensure exam and have a license to teach in the state. In addition, highly qualified teachers must demonstrate their knowledge of the subject they teach through certain credentials or test scores. NCLB also requires states to take steps to ensure that low-income and minority students are not taught by teachers who are not highly qualified at higher rates than are non-minority and low-income students.

NCLB gives parents the right to know about the qualifications of their child’s teacher. Specifically, parents have the right to know if their child’s teacher meets state licensure and other qualifications, if the teacher is teaching under an emergency license or other waiver, the teacher’s undergraduate major, and any graduate degrees he or she holds. Parents also have the right to know if their child is receiving educational services from paraprofessionals (i.e. teacher aides) and what qualifications those paraprofessionals have. School districts are obligated to inform parents in writing if a teacher who is not highly qualified teaches their child for more than four weeks.

Other NCLB Programs

Although public debate around NCLB tends to focus on the law’s testing, accountability, and teacher quality requirements, NCLB authorizes 45 programs, organized into ten sections, and funded at $21.7 billion in fiscal year 2012.

Title I

The Title I program under NCLB provides funds to local school districts to improve the education of disadvantaged students from birth through the 12th grade. It is the largest federal program supporting elementary and secondary education and was funded at $14.5 billion in fiscal year 2012. Funds are distributed to school districts according to a set of formulas based on the size and characteristics of a school district’s student population. School districts have some discretion in how they distribute Title I funds among schools within the district, but the law requires them to prioritize the highest-poverty schools. More than 50,000 schools (almost half of all public schools) receive Title I funds annually. Because Title I is NCLB’s largest program and most school districts receive some funding from it, the law’s requirements for annual testing, accountability, school improvement, and highly-qualified teachers are all part of Title I.

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Improving Teacher Quality State Grants

Improving Teacher Quality State Grants provide formula grants to states and school districts to increase academic achievement by improving teacher and principal quality and increasing the number of highly qualified teachers and principals in schools. The Improving Teacher Quality State Grants program was created by combining several smaller class size reduction and teacher professional development programs that existed prior to NCLB. In 2012, the program received $2.5 billion. The Department of Education distributes funds to states, and to school districts within states, on a formula basis. NCLB also authorizes several smaller programs to improve teacher quality, including the Teacher Incentive Fund, which supports the development and implementation of performance-based teacher and principal compensation systems in high-need schools, and the Transition to Teaching Program, which funds alternative teacher preparation programs. In 2012, the Teacher Incentive Fund received $299 million and the Transition to Teaching Program received $26 million.

Education Technology State Grants

Education Technology State Grants provide funds to states and school districts to support technology in elementary and secondary schools. The program was funded at $100 million in 2010. Congress did not appropriate funds for 2011 and beyond. Funds were distributed to states via formula. States distributed 47.5 percent of funding they receive to school districts through a formula, and distributed 47.5 percent to school districts and other local groups through a competitive grant process. States could use up to five percent of the funding they received for state technology activities.

English Language Acquisition

The English Language Acquisition Grants program provides funds to states and school districts to improve education and English language acquisition of children who do not speak English. It was funded at $732 million in 2012, with funds distributed to states and school districts within states on a formula basis. This program was created in NCLB and replaces several bilingual education demonstration and professional development programs that existed prior to the law. This change replaced competitive grant programs with a formula grant program that recognizes the growing number of English language learner students and their dispersion across a large number of school districts throughout the United States.

21st Century Community Learning Centers

The 21st Century Community Learning Centers program provides funding to states to support after-school and extended learning time programs that provide academic enrichment activities for children. It was funded at $1.2 billion in 2012. Funds are distributed to states through a funding formula. States award competitive grants to local providers—including school districts, community-based, and faith-based groups—to administer after-school and extended learning time programs.

Safe and Drug Free Schools

The Safe and Drug-Free Schools program provides financial assistance to states and districts to support programs that create safer schools, prevent violence and drug abuse, and ensure the health and well-being of students by promoting the development of good character and citizenship. In 2011, Congress moved the program to the Office of Safe and Healthy Students and eliminated grants to states and districts. The program now only funds national initiatives and received $65 million in 2012, a $150 million decrease from 2009.

Impact Aid

The Impact Aid program provides funds to school districts that serve “federally connected” children, including children whose parents are in the military, whose parents work on federal property, or who live on Indian lands, federal property, or federally subsidized low-rent housing. This funding helps to offset school districts’ loss of revenue because they don’t collect property tax on federal land, and covers some of the cost of educating federally connected children. Impact Aid was funded at $1.3 billion in 2012. Funds are distributed directly to local school districts based on the number of federally connected children they serve. It is the only Department of Education program that allows funds to be spent directly on school construction.

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