Elliott Seif

Philadelphia, PA

Interests: 21st century learning,...

  • Posted 7 Years ago
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Adapting NCLB to a 21st Century World

(Elliott Seif is a member of the Understanding by Design cadre and a contributor to Educational Leadership. You can find this blog and others, along with numerous resources, that promote a forward looking educational approach at:  www.era3learning.org)


How should NCLB be changed and revised for an Era 3 world? Eight modifications to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law are described in this commentary that would help all schools and teachers meet the needs of students in a 21st century world:

  1. Develop a set of explicit student goals-outcomes consistent with the demands of a 21st century education;
  2. Provide incentives to develop coherent, structured curricula around subject areas;
  3. Strengthen the NCLB assessment system so that it is more “balanced” and incorporates open-ended items that better assess student outcomes;
  4. Require districts and schools to develop graduation projects and other capstone experiences;
  5. Encourage districts to include more student choice and enrichment activities -- i.e. provide a variety of high school elective courses and strong K-12 extra-curricular programs;
  6. Encourage the use of engaging, interactive instructional strategies;
  7. Incorporate incentives to develop Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) and other systems that provide for authentic professional development and growth opportunities;
  8. Create the means for states, districts and schools to collaborate and share.

These recommended changes would together create a national law that significantly strengthens educational programs and help schools and students meet the challenges of an Era 3, 21st century education.


Discussions about No Child Left Behind most often center on such issues as adequate funding, proficiency levels, adequate yearly progress (AYP), the use of traditional standardized tests to determine success, and hiring highly qualified teachers. All of these issues are important, but several that seems to be left out of the current discussion may perhaps be the most important: What kind of an education do we want for our children in a 21st century world? How do we promote this type of education?

The current law frames educational success in terms of a very traditional, old-school model of assessment, the “bubble” test. It does not address the need for developing, implementing and assessing explicit 21st century learning goals -- the content, processes, skills, and attitudes that are critical to learn for living in today’s and tomorrow’s world. The 21st century demands an educational paradigm that helps students adapt to a rapidly expanding knowledge and service based society and understand highly complex local to global problems and issues. It does not focus on helping students prepare for a changing economy and career base or deal with rapid scientific and technological change. It does not support helping students gain a broad understanding of key ideas and issues, be able to ask and research good questions, learn how to discuss issues and argue points of view, write clearly and cogently, think systemically, understand scientific methodology, evaluate and interpret data, and creatively think outside the box. In today’s and tomorrow’s world, students will need to be able to process huge amounts of information – to sort, classify, evaluate, and synthesize large quantities of information that often come from “googling” a topic or issue. They will need to have the skills necessary to successfully complete complex projects. They must learn to interact and work collaboratively with all types of people. Students need to develop their individual talents and abilities through access to music lessons, sports activities, programs for the academically gifted, and/or a rich selection of extra curricular activities. They have to become lifelong learners in a technologically advanced, rapidly changing society.

The current NCLB law does little to support the educational goals and approaches described above, and even hinders the development of programs that support these goals. The make or break reading and mathematics accountability system, based on standardized tests and AYP results, has actually led many schools and districts to reduce their efforts to promote a 21st century set of goals. It has caused them to narrow the curriculum and increase the time spent on skill based reading and mathematics instruction and test drill and practice sessions. A typical result of NCLB is similar to what one middle school in Philadelphia does every year -- suspends learning in social studies and language arts for three months in the eighth grade from January to March in order to prepare students for standardized tests.

Changing No Child Left Behind

Given the current political consensus on using standardized tests as the most important measure for determining achievement and accountability, how do we create a different paradigm for NCLB? How do we develop a law that truly helps students live in the present and the future? Described below are eight modifications of the NCLB law that would help schools and teachers create programs that meet the needs of students in a 21st century world.

1. Develop a set of explicit student goals-outcomes consistent with the demands of a 21st century education. 

A first step for improving NCLB is to discuss, debate, and arrive at a consensus on a set of educational goals-outcomes for a new century. The NCLB law should include an overarching mission and vision statement, a set of student outcomes, that create an educational framework for a 21st century world. The development of these outcomes should be a major part of the reauthorization discussion and debate. 

One approach is to use the outcomes described throughout this website as a starting point for discussion:

"As a result of changes to our nation, to the world of work and careers, and to the global community, we posit that the goals of American education in the 21st century should focus on assuring that students:

  • Learn and explore core understandings within each subject area;
  • Focus on the following skills and attitudes:

Information processing and communication
Reasoning, reflection, and creative thinking
Investigation and research
The “soft” skills and habits of mind
The development of  civic literacy;
An exploration of individual student talents, strengths and interests."

Another is to adapt learning outcomes from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21)[i]. The Partnership has created a set of comprehensive learning outcomes that includes core subject area mastery, critical skills such as communication, critical thinking, and problem solving, life skills such as leadership, ethics and personal responsibility, and “21st century themes, such as global awareness, civic literacy and financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy. 

A third way is to build a set of outcomes from the ground up. A useful starting point might be an examination of diverse state regulations and standards outcomes. For example, the Pennsylvania State curriculum regulations incorporate the following outcomes statement:

“Public education prepares students for adult life by attending to their intellectual and developmental needs and challenging them to achieve that their highest levels. In conjunction with families and other community institutions, public education prepares students to become self-directed, life-long learners and responsible, involved citizens. Together with parents, families and community institutions, public education provides opportunities for students to: Acquire knowledge and skills; Develop integrity; Process information; Think critically; Work independently; Collaborate with others;[and] Adapt to change”[ii]

 While not perfect, this short and succinct statement of purpose includes goals that are consistent with the current and future needs of students, and a statement like this can be used to judge whether other aspects of the law help to implement key 21st century learning goals. 

2. Provide incentives to develop a broad-based, coherent, structured curricula around subject areas;

Many educators have argued that a rich and varied curriculum, one that

includes a strong arts program, introduces students to the pleasures of reading, and helps students develop their talents and strengths, is critical to a 21st century learning experience. Unfortunately, the emphasis on standardized testing in reading and mathematics has led many schools and districts to put great amounts of time and energy into teaching the mechanics of reading, mathematical procedures, and test taking skills, and has often led to a reduction in actual reading, understanding the underlying concepts of mathematics, and the teaching of science, social studies, history and the arts. 

This narrowing of the curriculum may be exactly the opposite of what students need to improve achievement levels. For example, E. D. Hirsch Jr. persuasively argues that students need less emphasis on the processes of comprehension and lower level reading materials, but rather should focus on rich and varied learning experiences and strong, rigorous subject area learning that help them to gain “word and world knowledge” necessary for success in school[iii]

The key to developing an era 3, 21st century curriculum is to develop regulations that strengthen deep learning in all subjects, including the arts, social studies and history, science, and elective courses. Time for learning 21st century skills and habits of mind will be created through a coherent curriculum. Coherence develops when a crowded curriculum is “unclogged” -- when a few big ideas and essential questions guide the curriculum and lead to profound, provocative, interesting, important or fundamental learning over time. Big ideas and essential questions help to organize programs, courses, units and lessons into a cohesive whole, and guide learning and assessment experiences. 

With a pared-down curriculum built around fewer topics, big ideas and essential questions, and a progression of sequential learning experiences, it is possible to use learning time to focus on how to understand what is read, write effectively, interpret texts and examine multiple perspectives, conduct research and complete projects, help students critically and logically reason and solve complex problems, and incorporate creative activities. In other words, paring down the curriculum will enable teachers to incorporate a 21st century set of goals into the learning process.

The common core standards already developed in English and Mathematics move in this direction[iv]. But these standards still have not led to coherent curricula. In order to improve this situation, NCLB should provide incentives and grants to publishers and educators that will enable them to develop and commercially disseminate core curricula in all subject areas that meet certain criteria – a focus on core learning, activities for in-depth learning, the development of 21st century skills and habits of mind, and interdisciplinary thematic approaches that do all of the above.

3. Strengthen the NCLB assessment system so that it is more “balanced” and incorporates open-ended items that better assess student outcomes;

Unfortunately, the NCLB press for success on standardized tests and meeting Average Yearly Progress requirements have led many schools to reduce their focus on assessments that matter, such as formative assessments, self-assessments, and open-ended, real life performance tasks and projects.  NCLB should encourage districts and schools to create assessment plans that incorporate multiple types of assessments, in which standardized tests are only one measure of success, and to create portfolio systems of accountability that utilize multiple measures to demonstrate success for each student. 

The rewriting of the law might be modeled after the Pennsylvania regulations (1999), which requires school districts to develop a local assessment plan that:

 “shall be designed to include a variety of assessment strategies which may include the following:

  • Written work by students
  • Scientific experiments conducted by students
  • Works of art or musical, theatrical or dance performances by students
  • Other demonstrations, performances, products or projects by students related to specific academic standards;
  • Examinations by teachers to assess specific academic standards
  • Nationally available achievement tests
  • Diagnostic assessments
  • Evaluations of portfolios of student work related to achievement of academic standards
  • Other measures as appropriate, which may include standardized tests.”[v]

The NCLB law should also encourage states, school districts and schools to share with the general public collective results from a variety of assessments as a means of demonstrating successful achievement and growth towards key 21st century goals.

Still another way to strengthen the assessment model of NCLB is to shift the standardized test accountability system from the current one, based on an absolute measure of success (AYP), to one that measures student growth over time. Many experts advocate the use of a “value added” approach to assess student growth[vi] and, with multiple types of assessments, it would be possible to determine whether students are achieving growth towards significant 21st century goals. Combining multiple types of assessments with a value added approach would also better take into account the cognitive and affective levels of students with diverse backgrounds and abilities.

4. Require districts and schools to develop graduation projects and other capstone experiences.


Capstone and benchmark experiences, developed at the end of a sequence of learning experiences (such as at the end of elementary, middle and high school) help students to synthesize learning and make connections to the outside world. They also provide a summative focus that helps to guide curriculum development at each level. They can take many forms. Research projects conducted in the last year at each level assess the progress students are making in learning and applying research skills. A “Problems in Democracy” social studies course in the junior or senior year of high school helps students to focus on key national and world-wide problems and issues and apply their prior history and social science learning to help understand these problems and develop solutions. Similarly, a science course at the senior level culminating in conducting a scientific investigation – finding a science problem of interest, conducting research, organizing an experiment, developing hypotheses, and so on, helps students to synthesize and expand their scientific knowledge and understanding. 

Internships and service learning experiences in fields of interest help students expand their understanding in a variety of fields and put their knowledge to good use. For example, working as a volunteer at a hospital helps students understand biology and medical terminology. Students who work with political organizations learn about democratic institutions. And students who work in arts institutions learn about art, music and the like. 

A school can also consciously create capstone learning experiences through the development of a series of graduation projects (e.g. performance assessments) that help students to synthesize learning in a variety of subjects.[vii]These projects and assessments are placed in a portfolio, along with self-development reflective essays and information (e.g. my future plans) and are then presented to a panel of outsiders and teachers as a culminating high school experience. 

NCLB should provide incentives for states, districts and schools to create and implement capstone experiences.  Competitive grants might enable schools and districts to develop model programs that might be replicated by others. NCLB should also encourage the development of benchmark-graduation projects and portfolios that, at minimum, teach and assess the use of research skills, the writing of coherent, organized reports, the development of presentation and communication skills, and community service. The implementation of benchmark and graduation projects would encourage teachers at all levels to include more projects as part of their instructional focus, with more opportunities for students to learn how to conduct research, read a wide variety of materials, write reports, conduct presentations, use technology more effectively, and think critically and creatively.

5. Encourage districts to include more student choice and enrichment activities -- i.e. provide a variety of high school elective courses and strong K-12 extra-curricular programs.

As a result of the current emphasis on reading and mathematics instruction and remediation, the number of subject area elective courses and extra curricular activities that provide choice, deepen learning and expand student talents and interests have been significantly reduced in many schools and districts. The introduction of summer remediation programs have also significantly hindered the development of summer enrichment and extra-curricular programs.

A new NCLB law needs to counter this trend by providing incentives for districts to develop elective courses as well as extra-curricular activities and enrichment programs both during the school year and in the summer.

6. Encourage the use of engaging, interactive instructional strategies.


The current emphasis on state assessments and adequate yearly progress has also had a deleterious effect on classroom instruction. More and more instruction is built around “coverage” of information and the development of discrete skills. Interactive and reflective strategies that take time and require explanation (e.g., discussion, inquiry, problem solving, and cooperative learning) are not likely to be used at a time when state tests are based primarily on multiple-choice questions. Yet some studies have found that the use of engaging, interactive types of instructional strategies is correlated with higher levels of achievement on traditional standardized tests[viii]

NCLB should find ways to encourage schools and districts to use a variety of research based, powerful instructional strategies, such as graphic organizers, reading and writing strategies, Socratic seminars, cooperative learning, project- centered instruction, problem-based learning, and the like to foster high levels of achievement.

7. Incorporate incentives to develop Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) and other systems that provide for authentic professional development and growth opportunities.

While much of the current debate about poor teaching centers on firing poor teachers, the data indicate that poor teaching is often the result of not spending enough time on powerful professional growth and development. Too often schools and school districts don’t create a culture, climate and supports that help teachers work collaboratively and effectively on improving their skills over time. As Linda Darling Hammond recently stated:  

"Those who stay [in teaching] are likely to work in egg-crate classrooms with few opportunities to collaborate with one another. In many districts, they will have little more than “drive-by” workshops for professional development, and – if they can find good learning opportunities, they will pay for most of it out of their own pockets".[ix].

The state of professional development and growth in this country is, in general, poor to dreadful. Much of the training that most teachers receive is mediocre at best. Mentoring systems provide little time for teachers to work with each other, and mentors are often not chosen because they are master teachers. Graduate programs often don’t provide the kind of training that helps teachers grow and become better teachers. There are few opportunities to teachers to spend quality time collaborating, observing and providing feedback on each other’s instruction, sharing strategies, and the like. Among other things, the lack of high quality professional development and learning takes its toll – for example, one study showed that six years after graduating from the Teach for America program, only 25% of teacher trainees are still teaching!![x]

NCLB should take the lead in creating incentives for states, schools and districts to provide high quality professional development programs. Colleges and universities need to work more closely with schools and school districts to provide high quality education courses and programs. Mentoring programs need to be strengthened. Internal collaboration programs should be supported, including school year collaborations, summer institutes, study groups, and lesson study[xi]. Alternative certification and professional development models should be encouraged.

8.  Create the means for states, districts, and schools to collaborate and share.


In order to help implement this forward looking approach to educational change, the Federal Government should help schools and districts collaborate with each other and share information about educational programs, policies, and practices that make a difference in learning and achievement. Through a government website, schools and districts can post information on how to implement programs that meet 21st century educational goals, share clear, focused curricular programs, recommend effective curricular materials, share instructional and assessment strategies for different programs and courses, and provide information on programs, courses, units, and lessons that promote high quality approaches to teaching and learning. Strategic plans that promote excellence can also be shared.


Some Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, the current NCLB standards-based testing scenario and the relentless need to demonstrate adequate yearly progress on state assessments to meet No Child Left Behind goals make it difficult for schools and districts to implement an educational approach consistent with the needs of students in a 21st century world. As more stringent and impossible to meet goals of standardized tests and AYP are implemented, greater amounts of time and energy are used to practice for successful test results. The unintended consequence is to leave many students behind -- without the core understandings, processes, and habits of mind they will need in order to successfully compete in a technologically driven, information rich, highly skill-based world. 

There is some indication that there is a political movement to change NCLB for the better.  The common core standards are more focused and specific than most current state standards. Two consortia are developing assessments that are supposed to be more open-ended and less traditional. Some thoughtful politicians understand the need to change NCLB to make it more compatible with 21st century needs. The Obama administration has developed a blueprint for changing NCLB that is a good beginning.

It is the feeling of the author that none of these changes go far enough. The changes to NCLB recommended in this essay are designed to help all students meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. They suggest a very different type of law – one that supports the adoption of a set of goals that focus on the needs of students in a 21st century world, a broader view of assessment policies and practices, an emphasis on a coherent, rigorous and expansive curriculum, a focus on engaging and interactive instructional strategies, and a more collaborative approach to educational practice that encourages creativity and innovation.  These changes could have a profound influence on what happens in every school and classroom, leading to a more focused, understanding based curriculum, a broader array of assessments, emphasis on learning in all subjects, greater choice and enriched extracurricular activities, and more interactive and engaged learning. 

The obstacles to changes such as these are formidable. The simplistic solutions built in to the law are easy to understand and have political appeal, and there is currently little political will to change the law in order to promote more complex educational goals. There is a danger that even if these changes were implemented, they would be used to politicize the educational process in order to promote partisan educational goals.

Never-the-less, we need a revised national law that defines educational excellence in a new and different way, one that is based on clear and explicit era 3, 21st century goals. We need to enter into the national debate on this topic, and change the nature of the discussion from the current issues (i.e., fixing standardized tests, meeting AYP, firing poor teachers, closing schools because their test results aren’t up to par) to a debate on how to create a law that meets the needs of students living in a new century. Together, we need to have the foresight to move the law in a different direction before we have lost a generation of children to a narrow, traditional standards-based educational approach that doesn’t adequately prepare our children or our nation for the future.


[i] For more information about the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and its explicit student outcomes and resources, go to: http://www.p21.org/

[ii] From the Pennsylvania regulations, section 4.11 b and c.

[iii] Hirsch, E.D. Jr (2006). Reading-Comprehension Skills? What Are They Really?

Education Week, 25 (33), pages 42,52

[iv] For more information about the common core standards, go to:


[v] From the Pennsylvania regulations, section 4.52e

[vi] For example, see Sanders, William L. Beyond No Child Left Behind (2003). Washington, D.C.: Paper presented at the 2003 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

[vii]  For information about and examples of capstone (cornerstone) assessments, see the

unpublished article on the era3learning.org website, by Seif, Elliott and O’Connor, Ken. Making a Difference with Data: Cornerstone Assessments for a 21st Century World.

[viii] For example, see Smith. J., Lee, V. and Newmann, F. (2001). Instruction and Achievement in Chicago Elementary Schools. Chicago, Ill: Consortium on Chicago School Research.

[ix] Linda Darling Hammond, US vs highest-achieving nations (2011). Posted at The Answer Sheet blog:


[x] Morgaen Donaldson (2008). Teach For America Teachers’ Careers:

Whether, When, and Why They Leave Low-Income Schools and the Teaching Profession. Paper prepared for the 2008 annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. New York, New York.

[xi] For more information about lesson study go to the Research for Better Schools website:


Additional Resources:

  • Another interesting article about No Child Left Behind, by Linda Darling-Hammond, can be found at


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