No Child Left Behind in Puerto Rico:
How Does the No Child Left Behind Act Affect Teachers’ Attitudes Toward Students from Low-Income Communities

Emely E. Medina-Rodríguez
University of Puerto Rico,
Mayagüez Campus

Leonard Ramirez*
Latin American Recruitment and Educational Services
University of Illinois at Chicago


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 questions.

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 confront teachers.


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 the school.

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.

Low Expectations

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.

Teachers’ involvement

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 problems.

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 social stagnation.

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 paths.  They 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 strengths.   

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.


Anyon, J., & Greene, K. (2007). No Child Left Behind as an Anti-Poverty Measure. Teachers Education Quarterly , 157-162.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder. 186 pages. New edition 1993, 164 pages.

(2002). PUBLIC LAW 107–110, JAN. 8, 2002, No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Education, Intergovernmental relations.

Reynolds, P. R. (2007). The "Pedagogy of the Oppressed": The Necessity if Dealing with Problems in Students' Live . Educational Horizons , 53-60.

Rivera, R. (2007). Leaving most Latino children behind: No Child Left Behind lesgistation, testing, and the misuse of data under George Bush administration. Data Critica , 3-10.

Schmidt, T. (2008). Scratching the Surface of No Child Left Behind. San Rafael, California: Unpublish thesis from Dominican University.

Strauss A. L., & Corbin, J. M. (1998). Basics of Qualitative Research. California: Sage Publication.

Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive Schooling: U.S.- Mexican Youth and the Politics of Caring. New York. State University of New York Press.

Weiner, L. (2006). Challenging Deficit Thinking. Educational Leadership, 64(1), 42-45. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.


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