The ABC’s of ESEA and No Child Left Behind

  1. What is ESEA?

    The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) was originally passed as part of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration’s War on Poverty campaign.

    The original goal of the law, which remains today, was to improve educational equity for students from lower-income families by providing federal funds to school districts serving poor students.

    Typically, these school districts receive less state and local funding than those serving more affluent children. Why? Usually because local property taxes are typically the primary funding source for schools, and property values are much lower in poorer areas.

    ESEA is the single largest source of federal spending on elementary and secondary education. In return for these taxpayer dollars, states and districts must now show that they’re working to meet the needs and providing a quality education to all of their students.  When education policy folks talk about accountability, this is what they mean.

  2. What is No Child Left Behind?

    Since its initial passage, ESEA has been reauthorized seven times, most recently in January 2002 as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Each reauthorization brought changes to the program, but its central goal remains: improving the educational opportunities and outcomes for children from lower-income families.

    (Congress is considering reauthorizing ESEA again in 2015—see our blog posts on this as it develops.)

  3. Wait… are you saying NCLB is ESEA?


  4. So providing federal education funds through ESEA ensures states are held accountable for protecting children?

    You got it.

  5. Why do we need ESEA and federal education accountability at all?

    Before the federal government started requiring states to test every student (almost) every year as a condition of receiving ESEA money, there wasn’t enough data to tell how specific groups of students were performing. States were able to just look at the average scores and assume everything was okay.

    With results from annual testing, though, it was possible to look deeper into how different groups of students were performing. This subgroup reporting, as it’s called, made it obvious that the under-achievement of the most vulnerable students had been masked in the old system of reporting. African American, Hispanic, special education, English-language-learning and many other students were being left out or left behind because schools were not held accountable for their individual progress and growth.

    Federal requirements and expectations in ESEA provide transparency and oversight on states and districts to ensure that there are protections for these vulnerable students, schools, and communities. This provides and targets additional services and support they need to succeed.

    After decades of inequities, neglect, and inaction at the state level, this law is designed to ensure a federal role to protect the interests of these children and communities.

    Transparency and accountability—those are crucial pieces to addressing achievement gaps. We can’t fix the problem if we can’t see it.

  6. What does the law actually do?

    In exchange for annually receiving billions in federal funds (that go to states and then districts by a formula based in part on the number of students living in poverty), states agree to put in place several protections and measures to ensure these funds are being used to support these students.

    While NCLB covers a lot of ground, it’s the law’s requirements for annual testing, accountability, and school improvement that receive the most attention. Let’s look at those:

    • Annual testing. NCLB requires states to test students in reading and mathematics annually in grades 3-8 and once in grades 10-12. (And once during grades 3-5, 6-9 and 10-12 for science).
    • Accountability. Individual schools, school districts, and states must publicly report these test results. And not just the overall results—they need to report for specific student subgroups, including low-income students, students with disabilities, English-language learners, and major racial and ethnic groups.
    • School improvement. If schools fail to make progress against state-set goals over a number of years, overall and for each subgroup of students, the law requires states to implement escalating interventions in these schools. Under NCLB, this includes offering school choice options, tutoring services, and school “restructuring.”

    The act also requires states to provide “highly qualified” teachers to all students. Each state sets its own standards for what counts as “highly qualified,” though these standards do not have to take into account student academic performance or outcomes.

  7. Why do people say NCLB is broken? What’s not working?

    Under No Child Left Behind, schools are held accountable for absolute levels of student performance, without looking at student learning gains. Put another way, schools are responsible for how much their students know, rather than how much their students are learning.

    Why is this a problem? It means that even schools making great strides with their students could still be labeled “failing” just because the students had not yet made it all the way to a proficient level of achievement. Under NCLB, schools aren’t given credit for growth (or progress made by students.

    NCLB also set a very ambitious goal for improvement: 100% of students at proficiency by 2014. However, because it’s up to the states to decide what “proficient” means, there’s an incentive to lower standards in order to meet that benchmark. Under NCLB, states also produce their own standardized tests, and some states made their statewide tests easier in order to increase scores.

    In fact, a 2009 study by the U.S. Dept. of Education indicates that the observed differences in states’ reported scores is largely due to differences in the stringency of their standards and proficiency levels.

  8. Ugh. So which parts of NCLB are working?

    Actually there are many benefits to NCLB, most notably:

    • States began to share student performance data and make it public, broken out by subgroup. This has vastly increased the awareness and visibility of persistent achievement gaps between groups of students (e.g., the white-Hispanic achievement gap).
    • The law also requires action. States must intervene when schools are failing kids year after year. While people can debate which interventions are better, we can no longer simply ignore the problem. This in itself is a huge step forward.
    • NCLB requires states to pay attention to teacher quality. Given that teachers are the single most important in-school factor for student achievement, this is also huge.
  9. Are ESEA and Race to the Top the same thing?

    No. Race to the Top was a voluntary competitive grant for states started under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009.

    Race to the Top grants went to 19 States that are leading the way with ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform.

    ESEA impacts all states and is the major federal law authorizing federal spending on programs to support K-12 schooling (more on this in (A) up above).

  10. Does NCLB require Common Core?

    No. The Common Core State Standards are a set of academic standards developed by governors and state education leaders, not the federal government.

  11. What are “waivers” (also known as “ESEA Flex”)?

    As mentioned above, some parts of the NCLB law are broken. So the Obama administration provides waivers to release states from some of these more challenging aspects of the law. Essentially, the Obama administration said: “We recognize that you aren’t going to make 100% proficiency, so we’ll give you a waiver from that and other overly burdensome requirements.”

    But states aren’t simply off the hook. In exchange for that flexibility, waiver-receiving states have to meet some additional requirements that show their good faith effort to serve their most vulnerable students. These include:

    • Creating an improved accountability system for the state that takes into account multiple measures and their local context (but at a minimum included student performance, growth and graduation outcomes).
    • Implementing college- and career-ready standards and assessments. The Common Core State Standards are one example of high academic standards that states can adopt or model, or states can create their own rigorous college- and career- ready standards.
    • Implementing policies to improve and support teacher and principal effectiveness.

    Applying for waivers was voluntary. Not every state applied for a waiver (as of January 2015, five never did) and one state (WA) lost its waiver and had to go back to all the requirements of NCLB when it failed to adopt the policies outlined in the waiver request (Washington state’s teacher evaluation system didn’t include all the multiple measures it originally committed to).

  12. Do waivers require Common Core?

    No. They do require adoption of college- and career-ready standards and assessments, but states are free to adopt their own college- and career-ready standards.

  13. Has the Obama administration (under waivers) required more testing?

    No. The number of required tests by the federal government has not changed since NCLB was signed into law in 2002.

    Some believe that the existing federal requirement has created a cascading effect in states and local school districts, many of which now regularly test students during the course of the school year to make sure they are on track to succeed on the federally required exam at year’s end.

    According to recent Teach Plus and Center for American Progress data, the amount of testing varies widely from state to state and district to district, with local leaders requiring the vast majority of tests. These are local decisions that are not part of the federal law or waivers.

  14. So, is ESEA working?

    While we still have a long way to go, especially with closing the achievement gaps, we are making real progress.

    • According to a national test that’s given every year (called NAEP), both 4th- and 8th-grade students showed improved math scores between 2011 and 2013, and 8th graders also improved in reading. Overall, there have been gains in both subjects since the early 1990s.
    • Math scores for Hispanic students across cities, states, and nationwide have increased significantly over the past ten years, and this increase reflects a steady trend.
    • High school graduation rates are at an all-time high of 80%.

    But to know if all these efforts are working, we have to have annual testing so we can continue to track how ALL students are doing—including all the subgroups and vulnerable populations.

    Recent posts about ESEA reauthorization:


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