The Effect of No Child Left Behind on the Disabled

In 2002, President George W. Bush enacted the legislation known as, ‘No Child Left Behind.”   Proponents and detractors of this legislation have argued its effects on students with disabilities and their teachers.   The main issues to be discussed in this paper are:

How will No Child Left Behind (NCLB) affect students with disabilities and their teachers?

How will the need for teachers to assume the definition of “Highly Qualified Teacher” under NCLB affect teachers of students with disabilities?

How will NCLB affect the collaboration between parents and teachers?  

How are the ethical foundations of teaching students with disabilities challenged by this legislation?

Possible Effects on Students with Disabilities

One of the most contentious issues surrounding NCLB is that of Adequate Yearly Progress. Under NCLB, all students in Grades three to eight including students with disabilities must be tested.   The purpose of the test is to increase school accountability — a core feature of NCLB.

In a published statement, the Associate Executive Director of the National School Board Association voiced a concern that “NCLB places way too much emphasis on one way of evaluating schools and students.   Local school boards welcome increased accountability, but they believe that the assessments for all children should be valid and reliable” (Resnick, 2005, p.1).

  The American Federation of Teachers has taken the position that students with disabilities may be at risk to be adversely affected by the legislation if changes are not not made to NCLB.

“Without significant changes to the law, its promise will not be reached and its effects could be disastrous …the AFT is concerned that the AYP benchmark may disproportionately penalize schools serving large numbers of disadvantaged students, including English language learners and students with disabilities” (American Federation of Teachers, 2004, Para. 2).


Another organization voicing their concerns over NCLB is the Alliance for Technology Access, whose mission is to connect children and adults with disabilities to technology tools.   With respect to these annual tests, the implication for students with disabilities is to ensure they have access to both the standard curriculum (in order to be familiar with all subject matter) and the accommodations they require.   While NCLB certainly provides for the fact of these accommodations, the problem is with the interpretation of the term accommodation according to individual states.   “…it’s up to individual states to determine what accommodations are allowed without rendering the results invalid” (Wahl, 2004, p.2).

The Center on Education Policy has also raised concerns over the possible effects of NCLB on students with disabilities. “Under NCLB these students must take tests geared to standards for their grade level rather than their learning level an approach that many of our (survey) respondents feel is at odds with the individualized education plans and learning goals of IDEA” (Center for Education Policy, 2005, p.viii).

Even more recently, the US Congress issued a report (2005) raising its concerns. Utah State Representative Kory Holdaway, a member of the committee and a special education teacher is particularly concerned that NCLB is in conflict with IDEA and called this, “…the act’s greatest weakness” (Holdaway, 2005, para.9).

Theoretically, NCLB advocates the inclusion of students with disabilities in annual testing in order to treat them as equals in the educational system.   While the inclusion of students with disabilities into mainstream education is extremely important, as long as the determination of what constitutes an ‘accommodation’ is open to interpretation, students with disabilities may face an inequitable testing situation.   This may hamper their ability to put forth their best effort on these annual tests.   It is also possible that increased local control under NCLB may impede the ability of students with disabilities to gain access to the resources and accommodations they require.  

Recent changes to the NCLB legislation may rectify this to some degree.   These modifications to the legislation allow for more special-education students in some states to take “alternate, non-grade level state tests…” Para.1). The efficacy of these changes has yet to be tested though.   A spokesperson for the National Education Association took a cautious approach to the announcement. “The modified standards would be a more appropriate way to assess students who don’t have significant cognitive disabilities, but have fallen ‘into the gap’, said NEA’s Patti Ralabate, a specialist in students with special needs…” (Ibid).  

However, organizations such as the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) continue to have a concern that:

“…students with disabilities must be assessed with high  

expectations using measures that appropriately provide for the use of accommodations as needed and alternate assessments for the small percentage of students with the most significant disabilities; and the use of                 individualized decisions are within the framework of assessment, assessment with accommodations or  

alternate assessments” (2003, p.2).


Under NCLB, teachers must meet new standards in order to continue teaching and there are regulations laid out for both new and current teachers.   While raising the qualifications in and of itself may be a positive step, the American Federation of Teachers has voiced their concern over the future of teachers who have not met these qualifications by the scheduled time as the law requires.   In addition, the Federation is concerned that:

“…NCLB does not hold charter schools and supplemental service providers to the same quality standards required of public schools and public school teachers…An additional problem is that although all paraprofessionals must meet the law’s requirements by 2006, many states have delayed putting in place the state or local assessment option for meeting the requirements…” (American Federation of Teachers, 2005, para.9).


The (CEC) has already developed rigorous standards of Special Educators.   Standard #3 — Development and Characteristics of Learners states: “Special Educators understand the similarities and differences in human develop and the characteristics between and among individuals with and without exceptional learning needs” (2004, p.3).

Standard #9 states that Special Educators must “…view themselves as lifelong learners… (they) are aware of how their own and others attitudes, behaviors, and ways of communicating can influence their practice” (Ibid, p.6).

Standard #10 goes on to say; “Special Educators are viewed as specialists by a myriad of people who actively seek their collaboration to effectively include and teach individuals with exceptional learning needs” (Ibid, p.6).  

These standards imply that Special Educators are not simply people who are well-trained but individuals who are ‘specialist’ in their field.   They are teachers not only with insight into their students’ needs but human behavior.   Also, the notion of being self-aware (as indicated in Standard #9) is not something that can be taught in a program or proven on a simple test.   Self-awareness is borne out of experience and time.  

Given these standards set out by the CEC, what are the implications of the NCLB regulations?   One implication may be that while a ‘highly experienced’ Special Education teacher cannot, for some reason, meet the new qualifications by 2005-06, their future in the education system may be in doubt?   It is just possible, especially given the concerns raised above by the American Federation of Teachers, that NCLB places too much emphasis on a rigid definition of ‘highly qualified teacher’ as opposed to an experienced one.   This rigidity may, in turn, take highly experienced teachers out of the classroom in favor of the highly qualified teachers as defined by the NCLB criteria.   Therefore, the NCLB regulations could inadvertently cause exceptional teachers their jobs and the real losers would be the students who need them.  

Another primary goal of NCLB is to facilitate   increased involvement of parents in their children’s education.   Under this legislation, parents now have more control than ever over their child’s education.   One the one hand this provides parents with the information they require concerning their children’s education.   It is not yet completely known how this issue will affect the relationship between parents of students with disabilities and their teachers.   It certainly seems as if the intent of NCLB is to facilitate improved communication between teachers and parents.  

With reference to Standard #2, increased parental involvement could be a contentious issue under NCLB.   Special Educators as defined by the CEC are teachers who “…understand how exceptional conditions can interact with the domains of human development…Special Educators understand how the experiences of individuals with exceptional learning needs can impact families…” (Ibid, pp. 3-4).   Again, here is where an experienced teacher is so valuable, not only to their students but to the families as well.   This kind of experience is developed over a long period of time, teaching many students with different types of disabilities and a wide range of learning issues.   Families with a disabled child must have confidence in their child’s teacher and confidence is borne out of experience, not simply one’s training.  

The CEC has stated its concern over the rigid regulations of what will constitute a qualified teacher and the “…growing reliance of education policy makers on using a single high stakes test to make critical decisions about educator’s professional competence” (Ibid, p.7).   The concerns of the CEC seem to be valid.   Another possibility is that the rigorous standards and definitions for what constitutes a Special Educator under CEC regulations may not be supported by NCLB.   Herein lies one of the chief concerns of the CEC and the possible effects of NCLB on students with disabilities and their teachers.   While NCLB defines a ‘highly qualified teacher’ as one who passes a single test, the CEC recognizes that: “Teaching is a complex activity.   It requires more than a grasp of a specialized content.   It also requires a thorough grounding in pedagogy; this is especially true in special education in which pedagogy is central to practice.   No currently available single test is able to adequately assess prospective special education teachers in both both content and pedagogy” (2004, p.10).   Again, given these concerns voiced by the CEC, it does seem that the notion of ‘highly qualified teacher’ under NCLB will not serve as an adequate benchmark for Special Educators.   This may or may not affect current teachers in Special Education.   However, it certainly has the potential to affect future teachers in the field.   It may be that irrespective of their highly specialized training, if they do not pass this single test under NCLB, they may never enter the classroom.   While this is only speculation at this point, it could come to pass.   If this is the case then students with disabilities could definitely be at risk.   They would be receiving instruction from teachers qualified under NCLB but would they be receiving instruction from the right teachers — the ones who can truly provide them with the highly specialized instruction they require?  

Finally, with respect to the foundations of Special Education, the CEC states the following: Special Educators understand the field as an evolving and changing discipline based on philosophies, evidence-based principles and theories…” (Ibid, p.3).   As this quote demonstrates, the CEC identifies the core issues and needs faced by Special Educators.   In accordance with these issues and needs they have set extremely high standards for Special Educators to meet.   However, now that NCLB is in place there is the possibility that these criteria and the foundations for Special Education could be at risk.   While there may be good intent with NCLB, the question is whether or not it is reducing the foundations of education to four very rigid standards?  

The education of students with disabilities, as the CEC has recognized, is a highly complex field.   It requires specialized teachers who are considered ‘experts’ in their field and not simply teachers who can pass a single test which in and of itself cannot address the issues in Special Education.   Students with disabilities also face a diversity of unique challenges.   Under NCLB, these students and their educators may both be at risk because of the failure of the legislation to adhere to the foundations of Special Education.   The foundations of Special Education recognizes the need to have uniquely qualified and highly experienced teachers in the classroom — teachers who have a broad range of experience and understand the nature of disabilities, the complex world of accommodations and technological adaptations.   Without teachers such as these in the classrooms of America, it could adversely affect the education of students with disabilities.

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