The Perils, Pitfalls, and Promises of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001: Implications for the Education of African American and Other Minority Learners

by Norma L. Day-Vines, Ph.D., and James M. Patton, Ph.D.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) federal legislation (P.L. 107-110) was enacted in response to declining rates of literacy and educational achievement among American children. This article will focus mostly on the perils, pitfalls, and promises embedded in the first two titles of the NCLB legislation, as the law's fundamental purpose is to reduce and eliminate the existing achievement gap between "disadvantaged" students, namely, certain students of color and poor children, and their more advantaged peers. As an example, it has been reported that on the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 40% of White fourth graders scored at or above the proficient level in reading, compared to only 12% of their African American peers. In mathematics the disparity was even greater, with 35% of the White fourth graders scoring at or above the proficient level, while only 5% of African Americans reached that level (No Child Left Behind, n.d.).

The NCLB legislation is designed to improve the academic performance of American children through the creation of highly qualified teachers and a unified system of education that creates high academic and behavioral standards and increases institutional accountability for adequate yearly student progress. The law makes numerous provisions that on first glance appear quite promising and comprehensive. However, upon closer scrutiny, this may represent a host of perils and pitfalls that can potentially impede educational outcomes for poor and minority children, the major target groups that the bill is intended to benefit. For example, the law purports to improve reading literacy, mathematics, and science education, as well as teacher quality, by instituting collaborative partnerships between universities and local school divisions in an effort to promote "evidence"-based practices in education. However, the law's insistence that highly qualified teachers meet "full state certification" may fall short of standards of excellence. Currently, the law and its subsequent regulations are devoid of significant language requiring teachers or related service personnel (e.g., speech therapists, occupational therapists, and counselors) to be culturally competent. It is our sincere hope that those responsible for reforming education will infuse a heavy component of cultural competency into the process, lest the bill be futile. Specifically, education systems, as a rule, reflect mainstream American cultural values that often stand in diametric opposition to the cultural values of children from diverse and marginalized groups. In order for education to be authentic, culturally relevant and culturally responsive, children's culture, social-economic background, and heritage must be taken into serious consideration. Furthermore, these realities must be used to bridge the gap between the school culture and the culture of the learners. The scholarship of educational researchers such as Michelle Foster, Geneva Gay, Lisa Delpit, and Asa Hilliard, to name a few, provides conclusive evidence that successful teachers of African Americans integrate the familiar and complex cultural contexts that children bring to school into their teaching and learning processes. No mention of these cultural competence dynamics was made in the NCLB bill.

Other components of NCLB increase block grants to states in order to enhance the quality of education, promote flexible use of funds, and reduce bureaucracy by consolidating grant programs. In return for the latitude the government provides state education agencies, local school divisions (i.e., teachers and administrators) will be held accountable for the performance of all students. School divisions that meet the clarion call for accountability will be rewarded with bonuses and other incentive programs. Districts that fail to meet federal mandates will receive various levels of technical assistance.

Further, districts that are unable to make adequate gains will be subjected to corrective action, and, after three years of failing to make progress, students will have the choice of transferring to other public schools or receiving supplemental educational services. Given this, there is a strong probability that we will, unwittingly, create a class of "floating" pushouts reflecting the very same populations that the law professes to protect. Moreover, a number of other unintended consequences may work against the desired effect of the law. For example, there is reason to believe that the prospect of student dislocation could have psychological consequences that negatively impact students' potential for success even in a more positive schooling location. Further, poor, single parents may not have the resources to make this transition a reality even with supplemental funds. Finally, three years of failure is equivalent to perhaps 25% of a child's education. By that time irreparable academic and psychosocial damage may already have occurred.

We commend the Bush administration for making funds available to improve American education, but we remain cautious as we continue to question certain components of the legislation. Resources alone may not be sufficient to carry out the federal government's vision for reforming elementary and secondary education without giving serious consideration to factors such race, ethnicity, culture, social class, disability, and the like. If we consciously and relentlessly avoid the potential pitfalls and perils of NCLB, the "promises" of this law will be eventually actualized and the unparalleled goal of leaving no child behind will be accomplished.

Date: February/March 2003