Before NCLB: The History of ESEA

By Standerfer, Leslie

The Elementary and secondary Education Act (ESEA) was passed in 1965 under the Johnson administration. Before that, federal legislation dealing with education provided funding or land for schools and special programs but was careful not to intrude on states’ rights to make decisions on curriculum and the general operations of schools. By limiting the federal funds provided under ESEA to only those schools that had extra needs because of the socioeconomic status of their students, there seemed to be the promise that the federal role in education would lessen the achievement gap between students of different backgrounds without intruding on those schools that were doing well without federal mandates.

With this increased federal funding, a desire for accountability rose. During the late 1960s, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test was introduced as a way to assess student learning. Scores were reported by region with the intent only of gauging how schools were doing in general, not of making comparisons between specific states or schools. A decade of school reform followed during the 1970s that included the passage of special education legislation, but ESEA did not deliver the anticipated corrections to the achievement gap.

Old Problems, New Answers

The 1980s were marked by the National Commission on Excellence in Educations report A Nation at Risk, which painted the picture that U.S. schools were failing and that if corrective measures were not implemented into the educational system, the nation would not remain economically competitive in the global market. Used as evidence that money was not the answer to improving schools, federal funding for elementary and secondary education declined by 21% between 1980 and 1985, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett commissioned the Alexander-James study group in the mid-1980s to make suggestions on how NAEP testing could be expanded to allow comparison between states’ results in order to increase accountability for schools.

The 1989 education summit held by the National Governors’ Association during the term of President George H. W. Bush led to a commitment to develop content standards at the national level for each core subject area. President Bill Clinton continued this movement in the 1990s with the Goals 2000 legislation and the reauthorization of ESEA as the Improving America’s Schools Act, which mandated that states create academic standards in core areas that would be assessed.

ESEA Reborn

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is the latest reauthorization of ESEA. In NCLB, states are now required to have students demonstrate proficiency on state academic standards through a state assessment. Each states is also required to have a system by which is can judge the progress all its public schools are making toward having all their students meet proficiency on the state academic standards by the 2013-14 school year. Teacher-quality standards have been added to the legislation; in the past, these standards have been handled on the state level and through accreditation agencies. States must report to the general public the status their schools are making toward meeting federal mandates for adequate yearly progress and employing highly qualified teachers. Severe consequences result for schools who are not meeting standards.

The bottom line for educators is that the NCLB legislation, with its increasing public accountability, was more than 40 years in the making. Our challenge now is to find a way to make the legislation work for us in meeting the goal that we all value: leaving no child behind when it comes to success in the classroom.


A brief history of the Elementary and secondary Education Act helps explain why-despite many educational organizations calling for the elimination of NCLB-NASSP has chosen to suggest changes to the legislation instead of expecting it to be eliminated.

Leslie Standerfer ([email protected]) has worked as an assistant principal in the Agua Fria Union High School District in the outskirts of Phoenix, AZ, for the past four years. She currently serves as a member of the NASSP NCLB Task Force.

Copyright National Association of Secondary School Principals Apr 2006

(c) 2006 Principal Leadership; Middle Level ed.. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.