Academic journal article The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice

Unintended Educational and Social Consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act

Academic journal article The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice

Unintended Educational and Social Consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act

Article excerpt


The rules and regulations of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB or "the Act") have not reduced the gap in student academic achievement as much as Congress originally intended. The great promise of NCLB is that, once held accountable, schools will finally focus on the education of low-achieving students, thus reducing the gap in student academic achievement between White students and African-American, Hispanic, and Native American student populations. Congress devised a series of punishments and rewards designed to encourage schools to find innovative ways to reach the children that schools have historically "left behind" in traditional public education. The creators of NCLB intended the Act to provide schools with rewards and punishments, in an effort to encourage schools to give extra assistance to the poor and minority students that public schools traditionally allowed to struggle or drop out. The punishments provided in the Act range from the loss of federal Title I funding to complete school takeovers. The rewards include additional money for afterschool programs and increased teacher pay for performance.

However, the way in which the Act has been implemented has failed to promote the Act's initial goals. Despite the ideology that schools should be held accountable for unequal academic progress, children who attend inner-city schools with the highest poverty rates must still overcome the second-rate education they receive in overcrowded classrooms in school facilities that are badly in need of repair. This disconnect between the goals of the Act and the real-world consequences of its implementation may be due to the current policy focus on student testing as the primary remedy for the achievement gap.

Legislation that establishes a formal policy of colorblindness - a postmodern assertion that race is no longer worthy of consideration in our meritbased society - and that asserts that social class is the most serious obstacle to mobility in America contributes to the Act's ineffectiveness.5 The rationale behind this school improvement rhetoric is that if schools and teachers in high poverty areas would do a better job educating their students, then there would be equal opportunities for all children, regardless of race. The most obvious flaw in this logic is that the inequities in our society extend beyond public schooling and are absolutely bound up in race.

In order to provide a historical context for NCLB, this article will first explore the history of school reform movements in America that have sought to redress unequal educational opportunities. These movements will then be framed using critical race theory to understand how colorblindness as a national policy has led to unintended educational and social consequences. Next, the article will review the unintended consequences of the Act, including shifts in the enacted curriculum, increased segregation of schools, the waste of thoughtful, research-based programs that had been in place before NCLB, the unintended effects on teachers, and the diversion of resources to testing instead of to teaching.


Modem American school reform at the federal level has been primarily motivated by the idea that education leads to social mobility. For example, the 1944 Servicemen's Readjustment Act, known informally as the GI Bill, subsidized college tuition, subsistence, books and supplies, equipment, and counseling services for returning war veterans of World War II to continue their education. Subsequent attempts at education reform, specifically the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, although targeted at a broader segment of society than the GI Bill, were also attempts by the federal government to promote upward social mobility through federal education legislation.10 Early federal attempts at education reform approached the issue by acknowledging the existing inequalities in society and attempting to counteract them through increased funding or increased access to higher education. …

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