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5th Anniversary of No Child Left Behind - How "Bush" education law has changed USA schools
By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY

The walls are speaking these days at Stanton Elementary School in Philadelphia, and they're talking about test scores.
Post-It notes with children's names tell the story of how, in just five years, a federal law with a funny name has changed school for everyone. "We spend most of our days talking about or looking at data," principal Barbara Adderley says.

Test scores run her week.

She meets with kindergarten teachers on Monday, first-grade teachers on Tuesday and so on. The meetings begin with a look at each teacher's "assessment wall," filled with color-coded Post-Its representing each pupil and whether he or she is making steady progress in basic skills. Once students master a skill, the Post-Its move up the wall.

"If they don't move, then we have to talk about what's happening," Adderley says.

What's driving the talk? President Bush's landmark education law, dubbed No Child Left Behind.

A cornerstone of Bush's domestic agenda and one of his few truly bipartisan successes, it took what was once a fairly low-key funding vehicle (it was known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act before Bush borrowed the catchy name from the Children's Defense Fund) and turned it into a vast - and contentious - book of federal mandates.

At its simplest, the law aims to improve the basic skills of the nation's public school children, particularly poor and minority students.

At Stanton, it seems to have made a difference. In 2003, fewer than two in 10 kids here met state reading standards; by 2005, about seven in 10 did.

The law turns 5 years old today.

It faces a tough future as Congress prepares to reauthorize it - a group of 100 education, religion and civil rights leaders today announces an effort calling for "major changes."

Is it improving education nationwide? It's too early to tell - many schools didn't get around to enacting most of its more than 1,000 pages of regulations until two or three years ago. U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says the law wasn't being fully implemented in all 50 states until 2006.

But one thing is certain: No Child Left Behind has had a major influence on the daily experience of school for millions of kids. Here are five big ways it's changing schools.

It's driving teachers crazy

Here's a pretty safe rule of thumb: Start in the classroom and travel up the educational food chain. The further you travel, the more you'll find that people like the law. Mention it to most teachers and they'll just roll their eyes. Many principals tolerate it. Ask a local superintendent, a state superintendent or a governor and the assessment gets rosier as their suit gets more expensive.

Carmen Meléndez quit her job as a bilingual language arts teacher at an elementary school last spring in Orange County, Fla., after the law prompted her principal to institute 90-minute reading blocks and a scripted curriculum - in the process making individualized instruction impossible. Meléndez also found that she couldn't teach poetry anymore.

"It was insane," she says. "The kids were all jaded. They were tired - they hated school."

Most of the frustration, teachers will tell you, comes from the stress of mandated math and reading tests. The law requires that virtually all children be tested each year starting in third grade - and it doles out growing penalties if schools don't raise scores each year. Naturally, test day in most schools is fraught with tension.

"They're 8 years old, and they're so worried about a passing score," Meléndez says. "I think that's inhumane."

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