Does No Child Left Behind Require that No Child Can Get Ahead?
Davidson Institute for Talent Development

An analysis of the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act on gifted and talented students by the Davidson Institute for Talent Development.

It’s been nearly four years since President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act (Jan. 8, 2002) – perhaps the most ambitious reform of American education ever attempted. Although it may be too early to tell what the results will be, per-student spending has increased at the federal level from $7,950 in 2001 to $9,940 in 20031 with an unprecedented focus on students whose performance is below grade level. The United States now spends $11,152 per student in all levels of education, making the U.S. the second highest spender in the world.2 According to the U.S. Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, “The president has delivered on his promise - thanks to No Child Left Behind, our nation’s schools are making great strides toward ending the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations; and ensuring that all children have the opportunity to learn.’” 3

The reality is not so rosy. Our brightest students are not learning in school. The fact is that No Child Left Behind is promoting underachievement among our nation’s brightest students, denying an appropriately challenging education to millions. That is because although the plan promises that every child will learn how to read by the third grade, it does nothing to ensure that students who already knew how to read in kindergarten will continue to learn. For these exceptionally gifted students, No Child Left Behind means no child can move ahead.

The 2006 federal education budget contained approximately $9.6 million for gifted education research grants, known as the Javits Act.4 This amount is the only federal funding allocated towards gifted education, which equates to a mere fraction of a penny of every federal dollar spent on education. Things are just as bleak at the state level. Since No Child Left Behind became law, state funds for educating our highest-achieving students have been steadily cut – Illinois eliminated its gifted education budget altogether; California cut its gifted education budget by 18 percent; in Connecticut 22 percent of districts slashed their gifted programming.5 This is in addition to the 21 states that offered no educational programs for gifted learners.6 What does this say about our nation’s commitment to ensuring that “every child learns?”

Students cannot learn unless they are being taught something new. Focusing on minimum performance standards to the exclusion of everything else neglects students who learn faster than the minimum standards. Consider that:

  • roughly 1.5 million students need a curriculum more rigorous than the current standard;7

  • between 10 and 20 percent of all high school dropouts test in the gifted range;8

  • as many as 40 percent of all gifted students are underachievers.9

The solutions are not expensive. Proven methods such as grade and subject acceleration require little or no funding because they take advantage of resources that are already in place. James Kulik reports that highly gifted students that are grouped with their intellectual peers gain as much as a year of academic development than if they had remained in the regular class. Skill-based grouping of students rather than age-based grouping has been found more effective for learners at all levels.10 Unfortunately, because No Child Left Behind focuses on reducing shortfalls instead of promoting excellence, it has created an environment where average test scores are more important than successful learners. Some administrators are denying high-achieving students opportunities for more challenging learning environments to boost schools’ average test scores.11

Every child should learn to read, but the student who already knows how to read should not be ignored. Every third-grader should master multiplication and division, but the third-grader who can learn algebra, should not be denied that opportunity. If underachievement is truly unacceptable, and we are sincerely committed to ensuring that every child learns, our educational system must give every child the opportunity to maximize his or her potential with an appropriately challenging education. No Child Left Behind should not prevent a child from soaring ahead.


1. U.S. Census and U.S. Department of Education data.

2. Feller, B. (September 13, 2005). Study: U.S. Losing Ground in Education. Associated Press.

3. U.S. Department of Education. (February 7, 2005). President’s FY 2006 Budget Focuses Resources on Students Who Need Them the Most.

4. U.S. Department of Education, Jacob K. Javits gifted and talented students education program funding. Available online at:

5. Golden, D. (December 29, 2003). Initiative to leave no child behind leaves out gifted. The Wall Street Journal, p. 1,

6. Council of State Directors of Programs for the Gifted & National Association for Gifted Children. (2003). State of the states gifted and talented education report 2001-2002.

7. Riley, R. (1993). National excellence: A case for developing America’s talent. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education. Available online at:

8. Rimm, S.B. (1997). Underachievement syndrome: A national epidemic. Colangelo, N., & Davis, G.A. (Eds.). Handbook of Gifted Education. San Francisco: Allyn and Bacon, pp. 416-434.

9. Ibid.

10. Kulik, J.Q. (1992). An analysis of the research on ability grouping. Research-Based Decision Making Series. (Stores: National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, University of Connecticut), pp. vii-viii. Available from Eric, ED 350777.

11. Golden, D. (February 4, 2004). In era of scores, schools fight over gifted kids. The Wall Street Journal.

Permission Statement


Contributed by: Parent on 4/23/2015
This is exactly what is going on. I have two boys who I worked with before starting school. They both read, knew colors, shapes, letters, numbers starting in kindergarten. And because of that, there they sat. Didn't learn anything and still are not. Now, one is in 3rd grade, gifted IQ, straight A's and bored stiff and the school says, "he must have ADHD because he acts up". Wouldn't you if you had no control and had to sit bored while kids are struggling with writing their name still. And my 5th grade son who has above average IQ, straight A's was in an advanced class one year and now in a "regular" class because it was based on his OAA test last year despite his excellent grades and IQ. He is put at tables to help kids from behavioral classes and other special needs. So much focus on showing improvement in the lower achieving class that both of my sons and lots of other students have lost out and are becoming teachers helpers so to speak. Time to get out of public schools if you want your children to have a chance at a good education.

Contributed by: Student on 9/23/2014
I am a college senior. I am currently 21 years old. When I was 8, I tested with a college reading level, and an I.Q. of 136. I was not allowed to skip grades. Through out middle school, high school, and even college I have a hard time focusing on my courses because they are not hard to me. I am angry because I could have been done years ago and working on my doctorate. Instead I skip class everyday and still get an A.

Contributed by: Parent on 9/25/2012
My daughter is a GT child. She is in 2nd grade (7 years old) with a reading at a level v on the FP chart, is doing long division, adds and subtracts fractions and percentages, and understands how to do most simple geometry. Still, her elementary school refuses to give her any special advancement. They have her reading at a level M because they won't test her further than her grade level, math is not self paced; and curriculum for science and social studies is way below her level. There is no GT program and they say that the school has no funding to start one. It appears to me like all the school cares about is those children who are below proficiency levels. It is truly sad. I am standing up to our school board, I will stand up to the State Department of Education, and I will stand up to Congress if that is what it takes. These children are our future.

Show All Comments

The appearance of any information in the Davidson Institute's Database does not imply an endorsement by, or any affiliation with, the Davidson Institute. All information presented is for informational purposes only and is solely the opinion of and the responsibility of the author. Although reasonable effort is made to present accurate information, the Davidson Institute makes no guarantees of any kind, including as to accuracy or completeness. Use of such information is at the sole risk of the reader.

Close Window