No Child Left Behind

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No Child Left Behind


The No Child Left Behind legislation purports to effectively eliminate the long standing “achievement gap” between poor and minority students and their white [sic.] peers. We employ a multi-method approach to investigate (1) the discursive dominance and construction of NCLB, (2) the quantitative validity of the law's implicit causal model of educational achievement and reform, and (3) the experiences of teachers forced to negotiate the demands of NCLB in “failing” schools.

No Child Left Behind


Hailed as a sweeping educational reform by supporters, the previous termNo Child Left Behindnext term Act (NCLB) purports to bridge long standing achievement gaps between poor and/or minority students and their largely white peers by instituting a system of “accountability” in education. NCLB mandates that all states design yearly tests through which adequate “progress” is measured, ideologically and manifestly conflating student achievement with the ability to perform on standardized tests. Policy materials suggest that NCLB is designed to address differential educational achievement by race and class. Still, the discourse and employment of the NCLB legislation do not recognize issues of institutional racism, class, or language disparities as potential causal variables underlying differential performance on standardized measurements (tests) (Spring, 2002). In eliminating social structural conditions as either potential causal factors or targets of social policy, the law and its institutionalization holds “failing” schools and teachers alone responsible for the recognized “achievement gap”. We argue that poor and minority students may actually be harmed more than helped by this legislation, both in its redefinition of achievement as test scores (under the neo-conservative ideology of the standardization movement), and in removing a sociological understanding of structured educational inequalities from our explanation of academic achievement.

The discourse of NCLB: “accountability,” “failing” schools, and the “achievement gap”

Discourse, especially policy discourse formally legitimated by the state, must be understood as more than simple interaction. It is one channel through which power relationships are determined, perpetuated, or challenged. The arena of discourse is where ideologies and epistemologies are resisted and/or made legitimate, where the “problems” of public education are constructed and framed, and where “solutions” are presented and legitimated as the dominant approach(es). As Smith (1990a, p. 215) suggests, “discourse develops the ideological currency of society, providing schemata and methods which transpose local actualities into standardized conceptual and categorical forms.” As we suggest, NCLB legislation provides the “ideological currency” for understanding the goals and strategies of contemporary educational reform. It communicates and perpetuates the dominant framework to understanding and addressing “problems” of differential student achievement in all localities (Feagin, 2001).

With regard to policy discourse, such ideology is “legitimated” through its textual mediation—its manifestation as official, written, bureaucratic state documents, or in this case, written law. In this sense, we must consider federal NCLB and state educational policy documents as part of the “textually mediated discourse” (Smith, 1990a) that defines and shapes how contemporary public educational reform is understood and formally “done.”4 To Smith (1990a, p. 211), textually mediated discourse is unique. “(I)n the distinctive formation of social organization mediated by ...
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