Five years after Congress passed No Child Left Behind (NCLB), two researchers say there are eight lessons to be learned about why the law’s remedies don’t work. They make eight recommendations for how to improve standards-based accountability.
“In critical ways, today’s NCLB amounts to a civil rights manifesto dressed up as an accountability system….rather as if Congress declared that every last molecule of water or air pollution would vanish by 2014 or that all American cities would then be crime-free,” write Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Chester E. Finn, Jr., senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in a recent issue of Policy Review.
The two researchers are the co-authors of the upcoming book, No Remedy Left Behind: Lessons from a Half-Decade of NCLB (AEI Press, August 2007).
While routinely labeled a “Bush” law, NCLB is actually a Rubik’s Cube-like assemblage of proposals from other administrations, New Democrat and liberal groups and leaders and other constituencies, they explain.
“NCLB’s accountability engine is driven by two pistons: insisting that states adopt systematic standards and testing for schools and districts; then intervening in ineffective schools and districts while also providing immediate relief for their pupils,” say the two authors.
8 Issues with No Child Left Behind:
- Noble but unreachable goals create perverse incentives. When people know they can’t reach goals, their primary motivation becomes avoiding trouble and focusing on compliance rather than on the goals, the authors say. NCLB’s soaring aspirations have created a system in which the prospect of likely failure leads educators to focus more on following procedures than on delivering results.
- Surface compliance is what matters. NCLB is frequently misunderstood as demanding student academic proficiency, the authors write. In fact, it only requires that states and districts comply with its guidelines regarding the reporting of data, spending, planning and adoption of interventions. The school choice and tutoring opportunities mandated by NCLB are poorly executed and enforced and school restructuring is deployed in its mildest forms.
- NCLB remedies are not what are driving reforms. NCLB may have caught a reform wave more than caused it, the authors write. A lot of the current standards-based and choice-based reforms are state- or locally initiated. Tempering the aspirations of NCLB is unlikely to result in slowing the nation’s education renewal, the authors write.
- NCLB is a smoke screen for local reforms. On the plus side, say the researchers, NCLB has created political cover for state, district or school officials who want to take bolder actions than they otherwise could take. The imagined threat of NCLB restructuring has fostered a sense of urgency at low-performing schools, the authors say. It is possible that the actual design and operation of the remedies aren’t as important as their mere existence, they note. The law operates as the Wizard of Oz in that it matters not for what it does but for the scary presence it creates “behind the curtain.” But as NCLB is increasingly seen as wielding little clout, its power is sure to fade, the researchers warn.
- NCLB may be a change agent in some states, an impediment in others. In states with their own accountability systems, NCLB can work at cross purposes to the states’ own approaches. In some states, NCLB has mandated restructuring of schools that earn honors grades from the state’s own accountability system. Less is known about NCLB’s impact on states that had done little in the way of standards-based accountability. The challenge is to demonstrate that the benefits in those states outweigh the difficulties for more reform-minded states.
- NCLB’s tutoring program is not working. If a school fails to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) for three years in a row then students are supposed to receive what is essentially free after-school tutoring. Supplemental Educational Services (SES) is not working because the machinery is balky and because there is not a coherent purpose behind it–one faction sees it as a prelude to full-fledged vouchers, another sees it simply as a way to provide extra instruction to students in low-performing schools and another sees it as a mechanism for stimulating innovative approaches to serving at-risk students by the private and not-for-profit sectors, the authors say. There have been lackluster efforts at parent outreach and scant attention to evaluation and quality control of these tutoring services.
- NCLB is producing data on school performance but not on its own performance. NCLB is providing a wealth of data on the performance of school-, district- and state-level performance. In the long run, the law’s greatest accomplishment may be the data it has furnished to parents, educators and state and local officials. However, NCLB has done a woeful job of gathering data on its own implementation and the effectiveness of its remedies, the researchers say, so that while we may know how students are faring in math and reading, we do not know what remedies are being used where and in what ways and what difference, if any, the remedies are making.
- Forces of competition don’t work the same way in public sector. In the private sector, competitors who aren’t performing up to snuff are bankrupted, bought out or become irrelevant. In the public sector, this almost never happens. State education agencies and local school districts have not shown much inclination to be the hammer that enforces NCLB provisions. “This is a strategic error that threatens to undo the promise of the restructuring provision,” the authors write.
8 Recommendations for No Child Left Behind:
- The federal government is not good at the “finely calibrated, escalating sanctions” that NCLB expects states and districts to execute, the authors say. Instead, it should do in education as it has done in welfare reform. Washington should insist that states label schools that need help, that they act to strengthen such schools and that they shut, replace or overhaul schools that resist improvement. The key is to make clear that states must assist schools that are identified as low performing and to provide the clarity of purpose and the design that is currently lost amid NCLB’s scattered components and disparate theories of action, the authors say.
- While it should be the responsibility of states to turn around schools, the authors believe, schools should be measured against national standards and tests. This would make it possible for parents, educators and officials to see clearly how their school, district or state is doing. States that have demonstrated success at school improvement should get greater flexibility in making future improvements.
If a school fails to make AYP even for a single year, they should immediately go into “corrective action” and deploy all remedies at once (e.g. tutoring and choice) instead of over a 7-year period. For four or five years, districts and schools should do anything they can to improve, but if after that period, results are unsatisfactory, the hammer should come down with no loopholes.
- AYP must be credible. Both parents and educators need to have confidence in the reliability of AYP, the researchers write. If states or districts are ordered to shutter schools that are reasonably effective, AYP loses credibility with educators and the public. AYP determinations need to be better attuned to schools’ effectiveness and AYP reporting needs to happen faster so that parents and educators know what the problems are well before the school year commences (such information is often delayed until August, September or October).
- Better outreach on SES and school choice. Parents need better, faster and clearer information about SES and school choice. The researchers say it makes sense to provide SES and school choice simultaneously to students whose schools need improvement. SES providers also need to be evaluated and districts need to be monitored so that they pay attention to customer service. Districts are also not the best gatekeepers to these services since they are being asked to work against their own interests, the authors note.States should explore how other public or private entities could assume those responsibilities.
- More school choices are needed. If choice is to be a serious element of NCLB, more options are needed. There should be more inter-district choices and families should be able to choose from high-performing charter schools and academically effective private schools. The private sector should be encouraged to meet the needs in various ways, including through virtual schooling.
- Develop turnaround specialists. States and districts need expert help in fixing their troubled schools. Instead of each district separately assembling the know-how, talent and organizational machinery to turn around schools, such capabilities need to be concentrated in a handful of turnaround specialists. The nation would benefit from a set of effective operators capable of contracting with multiple districts or states to provide the oversight and leadership to drive restructuring.
- There should be direct consequences for educators and administrators. Congress should introduce real consequences for failure for educators and school or district leaders, the researchers say. Failure to raise achievement has no clear consequences for the pay or job security of teachers or principals, they say.
The ambitious programs of the Great Society were undone by unworkable implementation structures and the unwillingness of supporters to acknowledge the limits of federal action, say the researchers from Stanford’s Hoover Institution and the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s time to relearn the lessons of the Great Society,” they write. Dogmatic aspirations and fractured design threaten to undermine two decades of gain in accountability.
“Held Back No Child Left Behind Needs Some Work” by Frederick M. Hess and Chester E. Finn, Jr., Policy Review, August & September 2007, Volume 144, pp. 45-58.