Reform School: How No Child Left Behind ruined American education. A dispatch by Kim Mance for

In 2002, at the height of his first-term popularity, President Bush signed the bipartisan No Child Left Behind bill into law. The law required each state to set a standard by which to judge its schools. The Four Pillars of NCLB were more accountability for results, more freedom and flexibility for states and communities, more choices for parents, and a commitment to the use of proven education methods. 

Sounds good, right?

There was a blitz of positive attention. A Business Week cover story compared Bush’s law to Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and JFK’s race to the moon. Story after story reported on the wonderful federal grants going to help states with education reform.

At the time, I thought it seemed reasonable, too. Finally, schools and teachers would be held accountable for student performance and communities could decide how to address their own unique challenges.

But as has been the case with other Bush policies, this one had massive hidden costs.

The many teachers I spoke with for this article unanimously agreed that NCLB’s emphasis on testing makes their job harder, more stressful and more frustrating. The major problem? Creating one standard for all children is impossible. The teachers spoke of the limited individual attention they could give students due to the narrow objectives of the all-important federal test scores.

The Department of Education insists that educators aren’t forced to teach to the test: “Curriculum based on state standards should be taught in the classroom. If teachers cover subject matter required by the standards and teach it well, then students will master the material on which they will be tested – and probably much more. In that case, students will need no special test preparation in order to do well.”

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Some kids have special needs. Some kids have a bad year. But NCLB essentially forces teachers to get the grades up at all costs, because the school’s very existence is on the line. Schools and districts that don’t make annual progress goals could go into sanction, whereby the schools can be closed, transferred to the state, sold to private corporations, or transformed into charter schools.

The bureaucracy involved can drive a teacher crazy.

Mel Powers, a special education high school teacher from New Jersey, describes walk-throughs by district administrators who evaluate whether miniscule requirements are in place, such as detailed testing goals being written on the chalkboard each day. “We have problems with gangs and teen pregnancy,” she said, “and they’re worried about whether I have the right testing sections written on the board.” She likened No Child Left Behind to “too many cooks in the kitchen.”

The burden on special needs programs has been especially tragic. Powers works out the standard Individualized Education Plan (IEP) with each of her special needs students. The IEP exempts them from passing the state test to graduate. And yet, they are required by NCLB to take the test anyway, and their IEPs are not taken into account when evaluating the scores. This results in a lowering of the entire school’s overall academic performance, making special needs children a disproportionate burden on the school.