No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education

No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA)


OnJanuary 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signed into lawthe No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) of 2001. NCLBA changed the federal government’s role in kindergarten through grade 12 education by requiring U.S. public schools to describe their success and effectiveness in terms of students’ attainment of academic standards and performance on standardized tests. The Act contains the President’s four basic education reform principles: (1) stronger accountability for “guaranteeing” results, (2) increased flexibility and local control, (3) expanded options for parents, and (4) an emphasis on teaching methods that have been “quantitatively” proven to work (

Among these four reform principles, “accountability” is considered as the most critical aspect. According to the U.S. Department of Education, an “accountable” education system involves several steps:

• States create their own standards for what a child should know and learn for all grades. Standards must be developed in math and reading immediately. Standards had to be developed for science by the 2005-2006 school year;

• With standards in place, states must test every student’s progress toward those standards by using tests that are aligned with the standards. Beginning in the 20022003 school year, schools were to administer tests in each of three grade spans: grades 3-5, grades 6-9, and grades 10-12 in all schools. Beginning in the 2005-2006 school year, tests were to be administered every year in grades three through eight in math and reading. Beginning in the 2007-2008 school year, science achievement must also be tested;

• Each state, school district, and school will be expected to make adequate yearly progress toward meeting state standards. This progress will be measured for all students by sorting test results for students who are economically disadvantaged, from racial or ethnic minority groups, have disabilities, or have limited English proficiency;

• School and district performance will be publicly reported in district and state report cards. Individual school results will be on the district report cards; and

• If the district or school continually fails to make adequate progress toward the standards, then they will be held accountable, and federal support will be withdrawn.


Significance for Early Childhood Education

Although the focus of the No Child Left Behind Act was on primary and secondary education, there are indications that its emphasis on test-driven accountability and quantitative definitions of outcome and impact may be carried over into early childhood education by federal and state governments. For example, several states (e.g., Ohio and Florida) already have developed preschool standards even in the subject area of social studies in line with primary grade content standards. Because states and school districts are busy working toward meeting the expectations of the NCLBA law, narrowly defined teacher accountability based on standardized content and quantitative assessment has become a politically and economically important matter to a much greater extent than previously. Early childhood teacher education programs are being asked to assess whether program content covers the state standards, and to make sure prospective teachers are familiar with the standardized state test, in the name of teacher accountability.

The No Child Left Behind Act has also resulted in additional federal legislation and mandates. In April 2002, three months after passage of the NCLBA, President Bush announced his early childhood Initiative Good Start, Grow Smart. This led in July 2003 to the Head Start Reauthorization and Program Improvement legislation, H.R. 2210, which included funding for a new assessment tool for testing 4 year olds. Concern has been expressed within the early childhood field that a standardized “one-size-fits-all” assessment tool completely ignores the diverse learning circumstances children from low-income families face.

In June 2002, the U.S. Department of Education released a report to the Congress, entitled Meeting the Highly Qualified Teachers Challenge, which indicated that teacher education programs are not producing the quality of teachers needed to support NCLBA. Citing a single study, the report concludes that teacher education does not contribute to teacher effectiveness. Critics of the report have countered that the study cited is only one of the fifty-seven empirical research studies recently synthesized by Wilson, Floden, and Ferrini-Mundy (2001, 2002), all funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Critics also note that the conclusions of many of the reports differ “fundamentally from those of other reviews [funded by the U.S. Department of Education] of research on teacher preparation ...” (Cochran-Smith, 2002, p. 379). Illustrative of this inconsistency are the specifications regarding “qualified teacher” within the new law. Public Law 107110, NCLBA section 2131 (a) National Teacher Recruitment Campaign, authorized a national teacher recruitment that would include assisting “high-need” local educational agencies. Noting that high-poverty school districts are more likely to employ teachers on waivers than more wealthy districts, the Secretary’s Report defines a highly qualified teacher as one who has obtained state certification from various alternative routes or passed the state teacher licensing examination and holds a license to teach in that state (U.S. Department of Education, 2002, p. 4 and p. 34). While it has been acknowledged that alternative routes to certification offer the possibility of bringing highly qualified teachers into high demand and high-poverty school districts, critics (Cochran-Smith, 2002) also warn that the new definition of qualified teachers has the dangerous potential of instantaneously transforming unqualified teachers into qualified teachers.

Thus, not only is teacher quality narrowly defined by the Secretary’s Report, student achievement is also limited to test scores. The No Child Left Behind Act requires that the standardized test results included in the annual reports of the states and school districts be used to compare achievement between students of different groups. The underlying assumption of the NCLB and the Secretary’s Report is that new, “tougher” standards will ensure that no child is left behind. The concern of many educators is that rather than “leveling the playing field,” comparison with such tests will, if anything, leave historically disadvantaged children even further behind as support is withdrawn from low performing schools. The irony of NCLB is its role in heightening attention to what remains, for the United States, a fundamental conflict over how to provide high-quality and equitable public education for all children.

Further Readings: Cochran-Smith, M. (2002). Reporting on teacher quality: The politics of politics. Journal of Teacher Education 53(3), 379-382; Hyun, E. (2003). The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001: Issues and implications for early childhood teacher education. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education 24(2), 119-126. Available online at; U.S. Department of Education (June 2002). Meeting the highly qualified teachers challenge: The secretary’s annual report on teacher quality. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education; Walsh, K. (2001). Teacher certification reconsidered: Stumbling for quality. Baltimore, MD: Abell Foundation. Available online at; Walsh, K. (2002). The evidence for teacher certification. Education Next 2(1), 79-84; Wilson, S., R. Floden, and J. Ferrini-Mundy (2002). Teacher preparation research: An insider’s view from the outside. Journal of Teacher Education 53, 190-204; Wilson, S., R. Floden, and J. Ferrini-Mundy (2001). Teacher preparation research: Current knowledge, gaps, and recommendation, A research report prepared for the U.S. Department of Education. Seattle, WA: University of Washington, Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy.

Eunsook Hyun