The Case Against Federal Accountability Mandates in Education

Congressional Republicans have promised to overhaul the No Child Left Behind act this year; the big debate so far has been whether to maintain the law’s annual testing requirements. At a hearing on the issue last week, Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), was clearly sympathetic to arguments by several witnesses that Congress should keep the testing mandate but dump the rules that prescribe how states must hold schools accountable for test results. As he summarized it for Time in an interview after the hearing, “You have to have the annual test. You have to disaggregate it. You have to report it, so we know how schools and children and school districts are doing. But after that, it’s up to the states, who spend the money and have the children and take care of them and it’s their responsibility to devise what’s success, what’s failure and [what the] consequences [should be].”

That Uncle Sam might back off of its demands that states intervene in failing schools has some reformers on the left on full alert. Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners—an alumnus of the Obama administration—considers it an abdication of responsibility, especially considering the $15 billion a year the feds spend on our schools via the Title I program. His colleague Anne Hyslop goes even further, saying it “eviscerates the federal role.”

I strongly suspect that these folks are going to lose the argument, mostly because Alexander is committed to getting the federal government out from under its current role as the “national school board,” as he often puts it. (So is House Education Committee Chairman John Kline.) Furthermore, he won’t be able to get enough Republican votes—in either the Senate or the House—if his rewrite maintains a heavy-handed federal role in education. If there’s a new law enacted this year, it will almost surely remove the federal accountability mandates.

Which is OK. We at Fordham have argued for many years that transparency for results is a better trade-off for federal funding than prescriptive accountability rules. I still believe that to be true. But I’m ready to go even further: Let’s admit that we’re not really sure how to “do accountability” at the state level, either. In fact, top-down accountability rarely works to turn around the worst schools. But there’s a silver lining, because there’s something else that is actually working better.

Before I get to that, let me pause to define some terms, because they are important. Transparency, as I see it, refers to measuring student performance regularly—annually is how we’ve been going about it, and should continue doing—and making the results available to the public, as well as to educators and policy leaders. Ideally that means slicing and dicing the data every which way (by race, class, performance level, growth, etc.). It also means boiling the data down into some sort of judgment of each individual school, like an A–F rating.

Accountability, on the other hand, implies some sort of intervention in low-performing schools. The original NCLB formulation included a “cascade of sanctions” that were supposed to get progressively tougher. The more recent requirements for the School Improvement Grants (SIG) program offer states and districts a menu of options for dealing with failing schools—from the tough (school closure) to the rather insignificant (retooling the school’s instructional approach).

What’s important to know about both generations of interventions is that they rarely worked. As we at Fordham put it in a 2010 report, bad schools appear to be immortal. That’s mostly because truly impactful interventions are almost never tried. In the early days of NCLB, most schools in “corrective action” chose the “other” option of school improvement (as in, doing something other than closing the school, chartering it, laying off staff, etc.). And under SIG, most schools opted for the so-called “transformation” model, which was the squishiest. That’s too bad, because at least a couple of studies demonstrated significant achievement gains for schools subjected to true turnarounds—where at least half the staff were replaced.

It might be tempting to “make” states embrace these harder-edged interventions. But that’s likely to disappoint, at least for our worst-case schools, for two reasons. First, states often lack the political will to take tough-love actions like laying off staff or closing the school. Second, and perhaps more importantly, states generally lack the capacity to oversee faithful implementation of the more aggressive sanctions. Nor can states simply delegate the job to districts, since the districts are often part of the problem.

The only state-led reform that shows real promise, in my view, is Louisiana’s Recovery School District and, possibly, its clone in Tennessee. By plucking dire schools out of their districts, they sever the link to the dysfunctional systems, contracts, practices, etc. that made these schools low-performing in the first place. And by pairing these schools with high-quality charter operators, they inject the capacity—better staff, better curriculum, new resources—that had been missing.

But the RSD is one promising example in a country with fifty million students; it’s hardly dispositive. Furthermore, it’s hardly a sure-thing, as Michigan’s effort at replicating it has demonstrated.

So what, then, are we supposed to do about the very worst schools—those that are low-performing (in terms of proficiency rates) and whose students aren’t making significant gains over time, either? Look the other way? Give up on the children trapped inside them?

No. Thankfully, there is another strategy, and it’s working remarkably well: Allow students to escape the worst schools through the powerful mechanism of parental choice. All over the nation, in cities large and small, charter schools are growing steadily and serving a greater and greater share of public school students. Which means, conversely, that dysfunctional districts are losing more and more students to charters. Eventually, they are forced to shut down sorely under-enrolled schools—which tend to be the same low-performing schools that reformers want to address. In Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and on and on, many such schools have finally gone away. And not because of top-down accountability, but because of the escape hatch called charter schools and the enrollment hemorrhage that they have caused for the worst district schools.

Of course, that’s only a “win” for kids if the new charter schools themselves are high-performing—which is by no means a given, especially in states like Ohio. We have to get the details right on charter school policy too, especially sound funding and the mechanisms of charter school authorizing.

Still, if reformers want the federal government to do something about failing schools, they should team up with the good folks at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and push for dramatically higher federal funding for charter schools, as well as smart policies to encourage the rapid replication of quality schools. Put the charter school engine on overdrive.

I’m not saying that we should give up on all efforts at top-down accountability. States should continue to experiment with various interventions in low-performing schools. That’s particularly important for rural and suburban communities where charters are unlikely to gain much of a foothold, and in districts that aren’t totally dysfunctional or bereft of capacity. They just might need a bit of a nudge to overcome inertia or local political challenges; state actions can be constructive.

But let’s admit that we don’t know precisely what that should look like, and thus we definitely shouldn’t prescribe a particular approach from Washington. What Uncle Sam can do is demand transparency around results, plus put some major new investments into high-quality charter schools. That sounds like a federal role that both sides of the aisle could support and that might actually do some good. How about we give it a try?

– Michael J. Petrilli

This first appeared on Flypaper.

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