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Sociologists explore the changing meaning of 'No Child Left Behind'

How did the "No Child Left Behind" law come to be seen as "leaving children behind"? Indiana University researchers Tim Hallett and Emily Meanwell addressed the question last month at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas.

They said in a research presentation that education accountability policies, such as those in the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind Act, are not an abstract set of mandates but an "inhabited institution," where interactions matter.

"When we think about accountability policy, people tend to think about it as some kind of abstract thing that's 'out there,'" Hallett said. "We want to show that accountability is an institution that's inhabited by people doing things together, interacting in congressional hearings. It's through these interactions that the meaning of No Child Left Behind is being challenged."

Education Gap

Illustration by Ned Shaw

Hallett, an associate professor in the IU Bloomington Department of Sociology, and Meanwell, a doctoral student, presented their findings as Congress is again deadlocked over reauthorizing the federal education law.

Some states have rebelled against NCLB's requirement that all students meet proficiency requirements by 2014. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proposed waivers for states that adopt policies aimed at improving teacher effectiveness and turning around low-performing schools.

Hallett and Meanwell focus on a previous failed attempt to reauthorize the education law in 2007. They coded and analyzed 700 pages of testimony from congressional hearings in five states and Washington, D.C., in which educational stakeholders contested the meaning of No Child Left Behind.

"Practitioners said that because of its requirements, the law leaves children behind," Hallett said. "This is key: How can you be against No Child Left Behind? To be against it, it has to change in meaning. We argue that the change in meaning is important because it becomes an opportunity to question whether accountability policies are appropriate and necessary."

Witnesses in the congressional hearings argued that the law's focus on accountability for schools and for groups of children meant that individual children were left behind. They said the emphasis on state tests forced educators to concentrate on students who were "on the bubble" for passing, to the exclusion of low-achieving and high-achieving students.

The critiques of the law that teachers had been making with each other gained new weight when they were presented in the formal setting of congressional hearings. The result was a surprising change in meaning for a law that had passed with Republican and Democratic support just five years earlier.

"No Child Left Behind had a lot of bipartisan support," Hallett said. "For all that bipartisan support to disappear, it's kind of shocking."

Hallett said the research helps fill a gap in the sociology of education, which has tended to focus on factors that determine student success, not on institutions and policies.

"Somewhat surprisingly," he said, "education policies have remained largely outside the focus of sociological research, generally addressed neither by sociologists of education nor sociologists focusing on social policies."