Paradigm Shift Essay

Taylor Marie Young

ENGL137, Section 008

Mrs. Teresa Hamilton

27 October 2017

No Child Left Behind: An Increased Emphasis on Standards and Accountability and What It Means for Education in the United States

The main goal of public schools in the United States is to provide an equal education for all students. With the endless factors influencing students’ educational experience, such as socioeconomic status, race, and gender, this proves to be a lofty goal, especially when most of the variables are out of the control of schools. Despite the diverse backgrounds that students are raised in, which affect their academic performance, the educational system holds schools accountable to the concept of achieving equality of educational opportunity. Achieving this idea would result in a successful educational system that not only values its students’ success, but also equality. However, when it comes to determining whether or not schools are making progress towards equality of educational opportunity, it proves to be a major challenge for the government to decide not only how, but also what to measure. The various approaches, such as focusing on access, classical curriculum, differential curriculum, and desegregated schooling, are constantly shifting; however, the most significant and recent change regarding meeting standards and the idea of accountability in schools was sparked by the 2002 enactment of No Child Left Behind. With the goal of achieving equality of educational opportunity, the educational system in the United States initially focused on the issue of inputs; however, since the passage of No Child Left Behind, the system now places a much larger emphasis on outcomes, placing a higher demand on standards and accountability that ultimately negatively impact schools and education in general.

From Inputs to Outputs: How No Child Left Behind Has Shifted Education

To ensure that at all students receive an equal education, an emphasis was placed on inputs. If every student receives the same thing, they are sure to receive the same education. This idea is corroborated through the desegregation of schools, because throughout “a twenty-year period during the 1970s and 1980s, African-American children in public schools made steady progress, cutting the achievement gap between themselves and whites roughly in half on the widely respected National Assessment of Educational Progress” (Taylor 1751). If it was not for Brown v. Board of Education determining that the segregation of schools was unconstitutional, black students would be denied their rights to access the same education that white students were provided with.

While the desegregation of schools proved to decrease the prior educational inequalities, there was still room for improvement. In the mid-1960s, the government’s focus started to shift towards the performance, or outputs, of children in poverty and of color. Legislation much like Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which strived to bring “economically disadvantaged children only up to basic levels” and its 1994 reform to achieve higher performance in the Improving America’s Schools Act signaled the approaching revolution in education (Taylor 1753-1754). Coming to the conclusion that equality of educational opportunity would be achieved if all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, gender, or any other influential variables, could reach the same level of performance or higher, the federal government’s enactment of No Child Left Behind produced one the most significant shifts in the history of public- school education in the United States.

Before this legislation, “there was little or no ability to compare the performance of students within the same school system, much less students within the same state” (Johnston 196). Given the emphasis on ensuring that the inputs for students were equalized, this makes sense; it was assumed that successful education was defined as providing students with the same schools, the same curriculum, the same materials, and the same opportunities. However, focusing on the inputs is only half of the process, because without analyzing and interpreting the outputs, it’s impossible to gauge whether or not access can truly be considered equal. This is what No Child Left Behind attempts to accomplish by requiring “each state to create academic standards, to use standardized tests aligned to those standards, and to publish that data for public consumption” (Johnston 196).

“To account for improvement in the academic achievement of all students” (Duran 80), furthering the demonstration of the shift of the emphasis on outputs, No Child Left Behind was designed and enacted in a consequential format. The legislation requires states to develop not only content that defines “the skills and knowledge that all students are expected to obtain and be able to demonstrate”, but also performance standards, which “define proficiency levels for skills and knowledge, which are required to be measured and determined through the use of standards-based assessments” (Duran 80). To hold each state and their respective schools accountable for meeting the standards, No Child Left Behind requires that schools show Academic Yearly Progress “by increasing the percentages of students who are able to demonstrate proficiency on annual standards-based assessments” (Duran 80). If a school does not exhibit the minimum Academic Yearly Progress requirements, it could experience sanctions and consequences, which is meant to encourage “reform efforts that produce significant, sustained, and continued improvements in the academic achievement of their students for fear of losing federal funding or losing authority to manage and operate their schools” (Duran 94).

Because No Child Left Behind has “turned to quantitative performance indicators to hold schools accountable for students’ performance” (Jennings 227), which are reinforced by possible consequences and sanctions, the stakes to meet standards are much higher than when the focus was on inputs. Despite the conviction that inputs were producing equality of educational opportunity, the data collected and published by schools throughout the country shortly after the enactment of No Child Left Behind proved that this was not the case, as “this information spotlighted the persistent achievement gaps between affluent and low-income students” (Johnston 196). This data not only confirms the need to analyze and interpret outputs, but also strengthens and validates the major shift in education towards accountability and standards that No Child Left Behind presented.

Implications: How No Child Left Behind Damages Schools and Education Itself

A surface level analysis of No Child Left behind would lead one to believe that the legislation sparked a positive shift in how we view achieving equality of educational opportunity. While the act brings forth the importance of not only ensuring the equality of inputs, but also analyzing and interpreting the outputs that they produce, No Child Left Behind has impacted the deep roots of education. The idea “that the nation’s education system should be accountable for its results” is certainly plausible and should be considered intensely (Johnston 196); however, because of the severity of the consequences and sanctions that the legislation presents, it has caused an unhealthy emphasis on standards and accountability that ultimately damages schools and education itself. No Child Left Behind has associated education with numbers, a detrimental association that “focuses on strategic behavior that creates the illusion of improvement, sometimes referred to as ‘gaming the system’” (Jennings 228).

Damaging Schools

The two major components of a school are the students and the teachers. In the most basic interpretation, school is a place where teachers teach students; however, this explanation is more complex when other factors are added. With the addition of No Child Left Behind, not only are teachers held accountable to standards, but also students, but more often than not, “schools face the possibility of confronting consequences and sanctions based on interpretations and uses of results that may be invalid, unreliable, ungeneralizable, and of little value or utility” (Duran 76). The negative effects of the legislation’s requirements and demand for accountability and standards are exemplified through the concept of Academic Yearly Progress.

Despite the endless factors to consider when evaluating and comparing reported data by schools, “the degree to which a school is looked upon as effective is generally determined by where it ranks in comparison to other schools based on standardized assessment results” (Duran 83). This type of rank ordering does not account for two important factors: variables outside of the school’s control and good instruction insensitive to measuring change (Duran 84). Schools have little power over the population of students tested each year, and it is important to avoid any assumptions that the current group of students has the same strengths and weaknesses as the previous group. Despite this reality, this assumption is still being made when “determining the level or degree of school effectiveness” is based off of their rank (Duran 83). In addition, reporting data that does not represent growth from the previous year may not account for the fact that “good instruction occurred but the test was insensitive to measuring change” (Duran 84). With the method of simply ranking scores based on the positive or negative change in relation to the previous year, a school with highly effective instruction may be ranked lower compared to other schools if they did not report as drastic of a change in test scores for the given year.

Damaging Education Itself

Shifting the idea of how to attain equality of educational opportunity towards students’ outputs, No Child Left Behind requires the entire process of administering education to be rethought. If schools and states are going to be accountable and meet the necessary standards, education itself must revolve around meeting the requirements of the legislation. As a result of the strict, yet ill-defined, requirements of No Child Left Behind that require states to create content and performance standards, the heavy weight associated with the state standards significantly influences education itself through curriculum and instruction and the idea of equity and access to educational opportunity (Darling-Hammond 7-8).

Because states are required to publish the data from their standardized tests that reflect the respective academic standards (Johnston 196), the education provided throughout the academic year will ultimately be crafted in a way that ensures students produce the desired scores. Such educational effect exemplifies “the recognition that assessment, especially when it is used for decision-making purposes, exerts powerful influences on curriculum and instruction” (Darling-Hammond 7-8). With that said, the value of curriculum and instruction deteriorates in the midst of the emphasis on achieving proficiency in state standardized tests. Not only that, but standardized “tests generally do not reflect the actual tasks educators and citizens expect students to be able to perform, nor do they stimulate forms of instruction that are closely connected to development of performance abilities” (Darling-Hammond 11-12). If curriculum and instruction are heavily influenced by the requirements of No Child Left Behind, the quality of education being provided to students is questionable, because it does not even reflect what society expects learners to be taught.

No Child Left Behind reinforced the shift towards an emphasis on students’ outputs in education; however, the legislation’s requirements “addresses concerns about equity and access to educational opportunity” (Darling-Hammond 8). Just as standardized tests influence curriculum and instruction, they also impact students’ learning opportunities. To ensure that accountability and standard requirements are met, data is often manipulated by “tracking students into different courses, levels, and kinds of instructional programs” (Darling-Hammond 8). Tracking students results in lasting effects not only in the range of their life choices and ways to exhibit capability, but also limiting their access to additional learning experiences (Darling-Hammond 8-9). When education that promotes growth and opportunities for all students is compromised at the expense of accountability and standard requirements outlined by No Child Left Behind, its value has undoubtedly been diminished.

Ensuring that all students receive an equal education is a major goal when it comes to public-schools in the United States. One of the ways to achieve this is by holding schools accountable and having high standards. It makes sense. If schools are going to have high expectations for students, then the educational system should have high expectations for schools. This was the foundation of No Child Left Behind, and the legislation succeeded in displaying “the persistent achievement gaps between affluent and low-income students” (Johnston 196). While No Child Left Behind aimed to expose the achievement gap and create an incentive for schools to improve education in a way that would result in equal outputs, it was written and implemented in a way that not only resulted in a drastic shift in education, but also detrimental effects to schools and education itself. No Child Left Behind has made a lasting effect in education with regards to the emphasis on standards and accountability, and the legislation’s consequences, sanctions, and lack of interpretation of results prove why it failed to achieve equality of educational opportunity. However, No Child Left Behind has demonstrated an important lesson: the power of legislation. If a single piece of legislation had the power to cause a tectonic shift in education from inputs to outputs, then one could only imagine the power of its more effective counterpart. With that said, not only do extensive amounts of time and effort need to be woven into legislation, but also passion and experience.



Works Cited

Darling-Hammond, Linda. “Performance-Based Assessment and Educational

Equity.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 64, no. 1, Apr. 1994, pp. 5–31. Harvard Education Publishing Group.

Duran, Alex. “Factors to Consider When Evaluating School Accountability Results.” Journal

 of Law & Education 34.1 (2005): 73-100.

Jennings, Jennifer L. “School Choice or Schools’ Choice? Managing in an Era of

Accountability.” Sociology of Education, vol. 83, no. 3, 2010, pp. 227–247. JSTOR,


Johnston, Mike. “From Regulation to Results: Shifting American Education from Inputs to

Outcomes.” Yale Law & Policy Review 30.1 (2011): 195-210.

Taylor, William L. “Title I as an Instrument for Achieving Desegregation and Equal

Educational Opportunity.” North Carolina Law Review 81.4 (2003): 1751-1770.

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