The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was created in 2001 to close the achievement gap between middle class White
students and low-income minority students in the U.S. NCLB is also mandated in Puerto Rico and affects Puerto
Rican educational institutions. Although this law has been studied in the U.S, its impact on territories distant
from the mainland is less understood. Little is known, for example, about how NCLB affects Puerto Rican teachers’ attitudes,
especially those working with students from low-income communities. Qualitative research methods were chosen to
encourage teachers from an intermediate school in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, to express their perspectives from
their own point of view regarding the NCLB Law and related themes. The school serves students from five surrounding
public housing projects, and ninety-two percent of the student body came from households with an income below the
poverty level. Statistics from Puerto Rico’s Department of Education also showed that this school had not
met NCLB’s Adequate Yearly Progress requirement for the past five years. A snowball sample identified seven
teacher and staff members’ participants, and they were interviewed using an instrument containing 26 open-ended
Teachers emphasized the impact of the environmental and socio-cultural backgrounds of students from this low-income
community on their lack of success on standardized tests and on their academic life. Teachers expect students
to possess attitudes that reflect their lack of interest toward the educational process. They assume the children
lack critical experiences and cultural capital and that this lack leads them to become disinterested in their
own schooling. The data suggest NCLB aggravates teachers’ low expectations of local community students.
To fully understand the implications of the implementation of NCLB in Puerto Rico we should consider the various
factors that may affect the relationship between teachers and students. We must also examine options that reinforce
the strengths of teachers and students taking into account the special needs of students and the challenges that
Much has been written about the No Child Left Behind Act in the United States, but less is known about the impact
of this law in U.S. territories. Puerto Rico is a United States territory, and therefore U.S. federal laws must
be followed as they are in any state of the union. Although Puerto Rico has no representation in Congress,
according to the 2002 U.S. Census 776, 804 Puerto Rican students in the island are covered by the NCLB act. Puerto
Rico has been under U.S. power since 1898 and has undoubtedly had a great cultural influence from the United States;
but this does not necessarily mean Puerto Rican students on the island have the same needs as American students
or even as Puerto Rican students living in the United States. There are 3.8 million Puerto Ricans living on the
island, and for the most part they are Spanish speakers and have a Latin American culture. Puerto Rico’s
political status has molded its socio-cultural expressions and social needs.
The No Child Left Behind was created in 2001 as a reauthorization
of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), one of its principal objectives being to close “the
achievement gap between high- and low-performing children, especially the achievement gaps between minority and non-minority
students and between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers” [115 STAT. 1440 (5) PUBLIC LAW 107–110—JAN.
8, 2002]. NCLB intends to close this gap by holding schools and states accountable for the progress of their students.
Schools have to maintain Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) to avoid being labeled as a “failing” school. AYP
is determined by each state in accordance with NCLB goals, and schools have to use standardized tests states to demonstrate
students’ proficiency in core subjects each year. When a school does not show AYP, consequences are gradually applied,
beginning by labeling the school as “in need of improvement” the first year and culminating with the replacement
of school staff and the restructuring of the school personnel in the fifth year (Schmidt, 2008).
The NCLB act has been highly criticized in the United States for failing to accomplish its objectives and especially
for not closing the achievement gap it was created to close. The standardized tests used to implement it have also
been criticized for being biased and for assuming that getting good scores on the test will close educational and
economic gaps. The law has also been accused of narrowing the curriculum and denying students a holistic school
experience. The literature identifies additional problems: it does not differentiate between communities
or social groups, it treats students from multiple backgrounds and multiple needs as if they were all the same,
and it affects predominantly minority students from poor urban areas.
Public policy decisions stemming from the NCLB law have also been criticized, arguing that the law is used to
advance private economic and political agendas and that it is being used to avoid policies that directly deal with
these communities’ issues such as unemployment or underemployment. Scholars argue this law encourages the
disconnection between students and teachers. Some agree that the curriculum has been replaced with practice for
standardized test. The literature suggests that it is necessary that teachers get involved in policy-making decisions,
because it is them who must implement these decisions.
This research tries to understand how NCLB shapes teachers’ attitudes toward their students from low-income
communities in Puerto Rico. It also explores low expectations and their impact on the student-teacher relationship
as they are expressed and described by the teachers. Moreover, this work seeks to understand, from the teacher’s
point of view, how NCLB requirements and low teacher expectations impact student interest in and commitment to
Review of the Literature
NCLB affects disadvantage students
Schmidt (2008) sought to demonstrate that NCLB schools with large amounts of disadvantaged students are more vulnerable
to NCLB sanctions. He focused on two factors to base his argument, proficiency gains and separation of subgroups
scores. The proficiency gains model requires all schools to reach a single proficiency level in order to close
the achievement gap. However, for disadvantaged students this requirement is a challenge because the next year
the criteria scores will get higher even if the school did not previously meet the threshold the previous year.
This puts disadvantaged students in the position of having to reach higher proficiency levels in a shorter amount
of time in order to avoid NCLB sanctions and the withholding of federal funds (Schmidt, 2008.) For Schmidt this
model unfairly affects schools with multiple subgroups that he describes as including low-income students, groups
with learning disabilities, or those with limited English proficiency.
To make sure subgroups are reaching the progress needed to attain statewide requirements, schools separate subgroup
scores from the collective school-wide scores. The author claimed this model unfairly impacts schools with certain
groups of students such as those with multiple needs. This provision identifies particular samples of students
failing the test to sanction the entire school, making more difficult for schools with higher numbers of disadvantaged
children to reach statewide proficiency levels. This makes those schools more vulnerable to federal sanctions than
those schools with a homogeneous population.
Weiner (2006) reviewed deficit theories and presented recommendations on how to challenge deficit thinking. He
described the school culture as fostering deficit thinking. He explained how the educational system structures
and sustains deficit thinking by assuming misbehavior or poor achievement were issues students inherited from their
families and that need to be fixed. Individual behavior and character are in need of reform in order to solve public
issues. This same approach can be seen in school practices and assumptions. Weiner stated this deficit thinking
often hides students and teachers abilities; it is especially powerful because it is a practice that people tend
to overlook or take-for-granted.
Deficit thinking in the educational system “makes teachers a mere referral agent and locates responsibility
for student achievement beyond a teacher’s reach” (Weiner, 2006). He added that educators are also
victims of deficit thinking, especially when parents and legislators insist that teacher deficits were the sole
reason for students’ poor achievement. Weiner explained that these assumptions, school practices, and traditions
obscure both teachers’ and students’ strengths. Furthermore he suggested that teachers might become
discouraged when they face the fact that they cannot change these practices on their own. Even so he recommended
that teachers examine these deficit arguments critically and develop strategies that focus on students’ strengths.
He also proposed that public education should change its face by making it important for teachers to challenge
those deficit assumptions.
Standardized testing: the misuse of data
Standardized testing is the method that NCLB uses to measure academic achievement in every state and for children
from all kinds of socio-cultural and economic background. Rivera (2007) argued that data coming from standardized
tests had been misused to prove that the policy worked for all kinds of students. She claimed the misuse of data
in this test needed to be tempered by ideological beliefs, such as claims of tests as scientifically based. Rivera
analyzed discourses about test scores statistics to reveal these ideologies came from very specific historical
and social contexts, especially those claiming that intelligence can be measure empirically.
Rivera examined discourses that supported the emphasis on testing and accountability, for example, those that claim
teachers have always used exams to measure student achievement, or to identify children with disabilities, or those
who emphasize the voice of the taxpayers who question the performance of schools. Furthermore she challenged the
notion that strong accountability based on testing was the key for a rigorous and challenging curriculum. Rivera
argued that the type of discourse that emphasizes testing and accountability was also used to justify punishment
for underperforming schools—paying no attention to social or economic backgrounds, stigmatizing children,
and labeling schools as failing, without considering the factors that make the students perform poorly on the tests.
According to Rivera, data interpretations “in some cases may not reveal the reality of those who are often
affected by it.” She explained that the misuse of data discounted disadvantaged groups in the name of scientific
testing and produced detrimental consequences such as marginalizing students or punishing them for underachieving.
The necessity of teacher involvement in students’ culture, life, problems and community was discussed by
Reynolds (2007), especially after the implementation of the NCLB. She noted that NCLB standardized test requirements
make the curricula disengage with students’ daily realities. Reynolds argued that teachers lack the freedom
to determine what teachings are more consistent with their students’ needs, particularly when the curricula
exclude important topics in the classrooms where social forces already deter the practice of critical thinking.
Therefore, the author suggested that students might experience alienation from the school environment, because
their lives are not part of the curriculum.
However, she gave examples of scholars whose projects helped teachers to examine their teaching methods to include
alternatives to meet the personal and educational needs of students. She also conducted surveys of teachers who
created lessons to help students deal with their problems. From the results, Reynolds concluded that “social
development must precede children’s consideration of the social force that affects their lives.” Additionally,
she explained these lessons were designed to help children control their emotions, manage anger, and solve social
Finally, she suggested that teachers promote respect in their classrooms and show concern for students. Moreover,
she recommended that teachers acquire cues to remind students the lessons taught when conflicts arise. The author
attributed the lack of teacher engagement with students’ social needs in part to NCLB test requirement. She
argued that “creating a curriculum of basics skills that can be measure by standardized tests is just another
way of ignoring students’ real needs.” Reynolds suggested that even with NCLB punitive policies teacher
should guide students in their personal development.
NCLB cannot close the achievement gap
Anyon and Greene (2007) explored the government’s rhetoric about NCLB functioning as a job policy. She tried
to demonstrate how the economic reality of disadvantaged groups shortens the power of education to lead people
out of poverty. They argued that NCLB was uses as an anti-poverty measure assuming that having a higher educational
level will lead low-income individuals out of poverty. Even so Anyon and Greene claimed that “for education
to lead to better jobs there has to be jobs available.” They explained that the US job market is limited
and is producing primarily poverty wage jobs and only a few highly paid ones. US economic realities make having
a college degree not a guaranty of having a highly paid job. Anyon and Greene advised that those promises of a
good job and better pay implied by NCLB were false, because for minority student and low-income individuals academic
achievement is no guarantee of economic success. The government wanted to imply that NCLB had the power to close
an achievement gap that was created by other factors that a better education cannot fix.
Seven interviews with teachers working in a middle school near the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez were
analyzed. The school was chosen based on its location and on the Puerto Rican Department of Education statistics;
The Marina J. Fernandez School is located near to and serves students from five public housing projects, and ninety-two
percent of its student body come from households with income levels below the poverty line. This school was labeled
to be “in need of improvement” for the past five years. Students’ age at the school range from
eleven to fifteen years with the exception of those enrolled in the special education program. Special education
students constitute half of the student enrollment at Marina J. Fernandez School and range from eleven to twenty-one
years old. Most of these special education students are not assigned to a particular grade but rather to a “workshop.”
Two mathematics teachers, one Spanish teacher, one social studies teacher, two counselors, and the school principal
were interviewed. Three of the instructors that were interviewed teach special education students and three teach
students from seventh to ninth grade. Teachers were recruited using a snowball or chain method recruiting process
beginning with the school principal. Open-ended interviews were conducted in an attempt to capture teachers’ views
about the No Child Left Behind act. Teachers were asked twenty-six questions about NCLB and students' college aspirations. Interviews
were approximately one hour in length and were conducted between the months of February and April of 2009.
The interviews were coded using the open coding method described by Strauss & Corbin (1998). Nine major
codes were derived from the data and analyzed without a preconceived theory. Two main questions were used as general
guide: How does the No Child Left Behind act affect the teaching practices in a low-income school? and How does
the No Child Left Behind act affect teachers’ attitudes toward students from low-income communities? The
analyzed data allowed a better understanding of the impact of NCLB on teacher attitudes.
After conducting the interviews and taking field notes, nine major codes were selected because of their relationship
to each other and to the literature. The first was related to the teachers’ comments that expressed their
low expectations of students’ academic achievement. In one major code named deficit, two sub topics were
identified, first, the lack of parental involvement in their children’s academic life and, second, the students’ lack
of academic and extracurricular experiences which are assumed to contribute to building cultural capital.
In the interviews, teachers expressed low expectations for their students’ behavior in the classroom, attitude
toward learning, and academic progress. They thought their students’ academic performance in class and on
standardized tests exemplified an uncaring attitude toward school. Teachers expected students not to follow the
conduct code in classrooms and to be irresponsible in their daily schoolwork. They assumed that they would not
be prepared to discuss homework. As one of the teachers explained:
I ask them for information, then I wait for the children to bring me the information the next day so I can continue
the class, but no, only two or three brought the assignment. But see, this is the way they do it. They go to the
library and print it directly [from the internet], but I ask them if they know something of what is there, and
one even told me that the library printers ran out of ink and that is why she had not brought it.
Teachers did not expect students to work at 100 percent intellectual capacity since they see them as disinterested
in school. According to teachers, uncaring students can be identified by their negative attitude toward schoolwork
and by their academic achievement, which includes low grades and low scores on standardized test.
Teachers asserted that students lack cultural and educational experiences outside their community. They see this
as a detriment to cultivating student interest in the educational process. One teacher commented that “lately
many students come [to school] with specific learning disabilities and it is possibly because they lack previous
educational experiences or maybe because they are culturally disadvantaged.” They attribute this lack of
experiences to their socio-economic status, but with the caveat that the socio-economic part is only an obstacle,
but not the reason for academic failure. Even so, teachers feel that their students are unable to achieve upward
social mobility because they have been acculturated to the community living standards, which they describe as welfare
dependant and unaccustomed to autonomy or self-government.
Regarding parental involvement, teachers do not expect parents to provide comprehensive cultural experiences for
their children, as do more economically privileged households. As a teacher explained, “They [students] are
not exposed to many experiences as when you parents have money and expose their children to broader experiences.
Then when the teacher discusses certain topics students know because they have traveled or been exposed to cultural
events. They are aware of certain topics so that when the teacher discusses them, they already know.” Teachers
claimed that most of the parents of their students do not provide an example of upward social mobility or academic
success to their children, but rather an example of social stagnation and resignation with their life style. Teachers
allude to the parents’ low educational levels and governmental financial assistance as an example of this
Teachers believed that family support and educational values are an important part of student’s academic
success. Therefore, if the parents do not get involved in their child’s academic life the student will not
obtain the academic progress teachers’ believe is necessary to achieve success. Teachers emphasized that
students lack the parental stimulus to inspire socio-economic progress. They feel that the community and the parents
of their students fail to provide social, academic, and cultural experiences that encourage students to aspire
to higher academic goals.
Teachers attributed the lack of experiences to the student’s environment. Living in a public housing project
affects students’ self-esteem. Teachers perceived that their students have a self-image of a poor person
without opportunities to succeed. As this teacher commented, “Look, it is like a cycle, they [students] don’t
have any other way, they don’t have the opportunities to expand their horizons. They can’t see outside
from where they live and I think that has an influence on them and the school.” Teachers felt the community
does not supply students with broad cultural experiences and opportunities for upward mobility. Children will not
be able to imitate or aspire to be successful professionals since they are not exposed to successful professionals
in their community. Teachers suggested that the students feel safe within their community environment and are satisfied
to only fulfill their community expectations. Furthermore, they maintain that their school is not capable of offering
socio-cultural experiences to their students because the school is part of public housing and is part of the community.
Teachers felt that students cannot identify with the school curriculum because their community has not offered
them the cultural exposure necessary for the student to be interested in learning.
Finally, teachers believed the school fails the NCLB standardized test because of the lack of importance that students
give schooling. They stated that many of their students are not committed to their academic progress; therefore,
they feel test scores will not affect them in any way. According to one teacher, “most of them [students]
stay in the basic part not because they can’t progress and it is not because they don’t know, but because
they don’t care. They don’t see the value of the test. They think nothing is going to happen to them
because they are not being graded and because they will not get anything from them [tests].” Even so teachers
saw success on the test as a measurement of the commitment of students to their education.
Data show teachers have low expectations of their students, specifically for two major reasons: (a) because students
come from a low-income marginalized community and (b) because half of the school’s enrollment participates
in the special education program. Many students have learning disabilities. These factors contribute to teachers
thinking that their students have deficits that will not allow them to achieve academic success. The first deficiency
is the lack of parental involvement in their children’s academic life, which for the teachers means that
the student will be lacking family support to aspire to be more academically successful. Even more, parents do
not provide socio-cultural experiences that motivate students to aspire to a profession that can be reached academically,
for example seeing one of their parents achieve social mobility through a job that requires a degree.
Another deficit the students have is the lack of the social and cultural experiences outside of their school
and community. They lack cultural experiences such as fieldtrips to museums, landmarks, and universities, which
expose students to issues and ideas that stimulate the development of academic interests and professional career
also lack social experiences such as camps or hobby groups, which expose student to people from multiple backgrounds
with ideas different from their own. Finally, teachers thought that the most severe deficit they confronted was
the limited academic capacity of their special education students to succeed academically. Half of the student-body
includes special education students with learning disabilities that range from the mild to the severe. These did
not allow teachers to demand better academic competence from their students. For teachers these factors affected
the interest that students have toward academic life and therefore their academic success.
Since the implementation of NCLB, teachers redefined their idea of academic success, which has been focused on
standardized test scores. Students who do not meet this requirement are not considered successful. To achieve the
adequate scores, NCLB requires teachers to redesign their teaching methods toward a curriculum that can assist
students to achieve the required test scores. This means that the curriculum is narrowed, which may contribute
to students becoming even more disinterested in their education. The students do not identify with the curriculum
as it becomes monotonous and links student needs to tests scores. The combination of these two factors: (a) the
deficits identified by teachers and (b) a narrowed curriculum, which is unrelated to the students’ needs,
may cause students to disengage with their own education. Students do not give importance to standardized tests
that might increase their success as defined by teachers nor do they obtain the scores needed to fulfill NCLB requirements.
This in turn causes an increase in teachers’ low expectations of their students.
Aggravating these attitudes is the fact that teachers do not integrate into the process the acquisition of comprehensive,
holistic learning, which takes into consideration student’s comprehensive needs. Teacher attitudes may lead
students to believe that they do not care about their well-being. Therefore, this could increase the disengagement
of students with their education even more and may exacerbate behaviors that teachers identify as uncaring. Valenzuela
(1999) suggested that a complete appreciation of the material, physical, psychological, and spiritual need of students
should guide teachers in the educational process. To obtain this kind of education Weiner (2006) recommended that
teachers critically examine deficit explanations about their students and search for strategies that focus on their
In the Puerto Rican context the situation is aggravated since Puerto Ricans do not have a say in the educational
policies implemented in the island because of their political status vis-à-vis the United States. Moreover
this law shapes Puerto Rico’s own educational laws as for example the most recent Department of Education
circular letter, which takes the results of standardized test to reform Puerto Rico’s school culture, even
though the law does not take into account the academic and social needs in schools like this one. For example,
the letter urged principals to stop fieldtrips that are not related to academic achievement, even though teachers
urge more student exposure outside the school and their communities.
Freire (1970) explained that “Many political and educational plans have failed because their authors designed
them according to their own personal views of reality, never once taking into account (except as mere objects of
their actions) the men-in-a-situation to whom their program was ostensibly directed.” The agency of the teacher
in making decisions for the welfare of students each day is reduced by this law that does not take into account
the realities of Puerto Rico’s low-income communities. NCLB does the opposite of what democratic society
is looking to do with an impartial and fair education. More than anything, a public policy should encourage an
education where the strengths of the teacher and the student are reinforced, where teachers are encouraged to meet
and interact with their students’ community.
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