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Americans Doubt Effectiveness of “No Child Left Behind”

Americans Doubt Effectiveness of “No Child Left Behind”

Americans with an opinion are more negative than positive

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans provide a less-than-enthusiastic endorsement of the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), now in its eighth year. Of those familiar with the act, 21% say it has made the education received by public school students in the United States better, while almost half, 45%, say it has made no difference and 29% say it has made public school students' education worse.


The No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law on Jan. 8, 2002, as one of the first major pieces of domestic legislation of the George W. Bush administration. Although it is a complex law covering many different aspects of education, its primary purpose is to impose rigorous state-enacted testing standards on school systems across the country, with concomitant penalties for schools that do not show improvement. The legislation is up for reauthorization this year, and its goal is 100% proficiency for public school students in several subject areas, including math and reading, by the 2013-2014 school year.

At this point, 60% of Americans say they are either very or somewhat familiar with NCLB, with 14% saying they are not familiar at all with it.


Although NCLB most directly affects parents with school-aged children, U.S. adults who have K-12 children are only slightly more familiar with the Act than are those with no K-12 children.


The basic question about the effectiveness of NCLB was asked of those who said they were very, somewhat, or not too familiar with it, excluding those who said "not familiar at all." Within the larger group of those who have at least a passing familiarity with NCLB, there are significant differences in perceptions of its effectiveness by level of knowledge. Among those who are very familiar with NCLB, about 14% of the total adult population, views of NCLB skew very negative, with more than twice as many saying it has made things worse as saying it has made them better. Views are significantly less negative among those with lower levels of self-reported familiarity.


Parents of K-12 children, as well as the subset of parents of children in public schools, are somewhat more positive than those who have no children in school.


The NCLB Act has been heavily identified with President Bush, who pushed for the legislation as a national extension of policies enacted while he was governor of Texas. Yet the law passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and was actively supported by Democratic representatives and senators, including Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy. At this point, Republicans have somewhat more positive views on the impact of NCLB than do independents or Democrats, although the differences are not large.


There is no effusively positive attitude toward NCLB from any political group, as can be seen. Republicans are evenly divided in terms of those who say NCLB has so far made education for public school students better as opposed to worse. Independents and Democrats, on the other hand, tilt more in the "worse" direction.

Bottom Line

While NCLB is currently in limbo, awaiting congressional reauthorization, Gallup finds no consensus among either the entire American adult population or parents of school-aged children that the landmark education act has improved the quality of education received by public school children in the U.S. In fact, of those who are familiar with NCLB, a large majority say either it has had no effect on students' education or has made it worse. A bit of better news for supporters of NCLB is the finding that parents of school-aged children are a little more positive about the impact of the Act than are those who do not have children in school.

Of potential importance is the fact that those who claim to be very familiar with NCLB are most strongly convinced that it has had a negative impact. While this could indicate that more intimate exposure to NCLB and its implementation causes one to become more negative, it could also be that critics of the law are much more engaged on the issue, and pay closer attention to it, than do those who support it.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,010 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 6-9, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 887 adults who are very, somewhat, or not too familiar with the No Child Left Behind Act, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 233 parents with children in kindergarten through Grade 12, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±8 points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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