"No Child Left Behind" was a bipartisan law overwhelmingly approved by both Democrats and Republicans and signed into law by US President George W. Bush. It was created to address crippling flaws in an American education system that was still operating in the 1920s.

And it worked. For the first time in history, boys and girls achieved parity in math scores and scores for minorities went up across the board. Yet the law was vilified and when President Obama took office he honored the wishes of his education union campaign donors and gutted the program.

Where did "No Child Left Behind" go so wrong? Well, it didn't, that is just politics. Teachers and unions tried to blame it for burnout and job satisfaction and both Presidents Bush and Obama promised to hire more teachers, not accepting that the reasons teachers quit had nothing to do with No Child Left Behind or salaries and everything to do with a tenure and educational system that penalized energetic young teachers. 

The public perception that No Child Left Behind has increased burnout and lowered job satisfaction among teachers is unfounded, according to a recent study co-authored by UT Dallas researcher Dr. James R. Harrington.

Writing in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, University of Texas at Dallas scholar Dr. James R. Harrington and colleagues found that the accountability pressures of No Child Left Behind did not have much of an impact on teachers' job satisfaction or commitment to the profession.

UT Dallas researcher Dr. James
R. Harrington. Credit: UT Dallas

No Child Left Behind was just the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, a federal law authorizing spending on programs to support K-12 education. It included requirements for testing, accountability and school improvements. Though effectively gutted now because states can simply opt out, it has been in effect for over 10 years.

Yet the complaints that it forced teachers to teach to the test alternate with worried on international tests that American students don't take tests all that well. Every time American students place in the middle of the pack on international standardized tests - which they have on every international standardized test since they began - unions and the politicians they fund blame lack of funding.

In reality, teachers hate being blamed for poor test scores when American education focuses on 'how to think', not teaching to take tests. Looking at the countries that do well on international tests, there is a common pattern; they learn by rote. So Finland, with its ultra-conservative education style, where teaching is prestigious and they run the show because poor teachers can be fired, teaches what students need, without the social engineering of American education. China also does well, students there learn by rote and teachers have to clean their bathrooms.

The research team  used a nationally representative sample of 140,000 teachers from multiple waves of the National Center for Education Statistics' Schools and Staffing Survey from 1994 to 2008. Documenting overall trends in teacher attitudes, they considered the impact of NCLB on teachers' job demands, perceived autonomy and administrator support.

Harrington said the study helps shed light on NCLB and its impacts — both positive and negative. "We do find that teachers after NCLB felt like they had more autonomy at work and more control, which is kind of backward to what we hear when we think about 'teach to the test'. We also see that teachers feel more supported by administrators.

"On the other hand, we see that there are more demands. Teachers are working longer hours after NCLB. There is also some evidence that the accountability pressures reduced feelings of cooperation among teachers."

Harrington said the researchers were surprised to find that NCLB did not have a negative effect on satisfaction or commitment.

In fact, the percentage of teachers who said they intended to remain in the profession until retirement increased to 77 percent in 2008 from 65 percent in 1994.

"As we're going through the reauthorization of NCLB and having policy debates on how accountability should work, policymakers should take into account the full information on how accountability programs have affected job attitudes and work environments, and retool NCLB to be even more effective than it has been," he said.

Harrington also said that future research is needed to answer questions regarding accountability in other environments, such as in higher education and local and state government.

Harrington, who specializes in the intersection between education policy and management, is already investigating further. Two of his current projects explore how NCLB affects decision-making and data usage and how the program has influenced the distribution of teachers across their school districts.

"Everybody supports accountability at some level because we want to hold people accountable for their performances," Harrington said. "However, we don't know much about accountability systems' effects on attitudes, work environments or outcomes. I think there's a lot more we need to learn to effectively implement accountability in the government."