ESEA is Exacerbating Inequality—Let’s Not Make It Worse

In an Education Sector report released yesterday—The New State Achievement Gap: How Waivers Could Make It Worse-Or Better—Constance Clark and I report the effects of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) on education inequality, the ill that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was long ago written to cure. ESEA was conceived, we should remember, as a way for the federal government to help states reduce educational disadvantages that they lacked the resources, the know-how, or the will to reduce on their own. For 50 years Washington has gone to and fro with the states, including multiple reauthorizations of ESEA, trying to find the right incentives and sanctions. NCLB, the current version of ESEA, represented Washington at its toughest, or at least most prescriptive.

What happened? Some states did fantastically well. Using the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) as our measure, we found some states had raised the achievement of economically disadvantaged students the equivalent of a full grade level or more in just eight years, 2003-2008—this at grades four and eight and in reading and math. States hitting this bar, in order of success, include: Maryland, New Jersey, Massachusetts, District of Columbia, Alabama, Georgia, Nevada, and Florida. But many other states helped their disadvantaged students to little or no progress, including one that moved students backward. (They are named in the report.)

That states differ is hardly news. But the magnitude of the differences is. In less than a decade, the states have created a new achievement gap that is nearly two-thirds the size of the achievement gap between black and white students, a gap rooted in slavery, discrimination, and 200 years of shameful history. The new gap has nothing to do with economic resources, the historic differentiator of the states, or with where states stood at the beginning of the period—since it is always easier to make gains if you’re starting low. Our study controlled for the obvious causes of differential gain rates. In the end, the gap in state improvement remained, and remained large.

What explains the gap? In essence, whether states have been serious about reform. The states that made the most progress after allowing for other factors—Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Kentucky, and Georgia, to name the top five—have taken steps, in various ways, to raise academic standards and back them up with rigorous assessments, implement tough but thoughtful accountability systems, and strengthen human capital practices to attract, develop, and retain educators who can deliver on high standards. Low performing states simply have not.

Both parties in Washington are now taken with the idea that states are our best bet for improving education for our most disadvantaged students. The administration has now granted waivers to 37 states and D.C. to carry out their own plans for fulfilling ESEA, subject to some common parameters. Waivers have been approved in equal numbers for states that have performed well and deserve the administration’s trust, and states that have performed abysmally and offer no evidence that trust will be repaid with results. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, yesterday unveiled a  proposal for ESEA reauthorization, endorsing waivers and offering additional flexibility for the states—with no meaningful accountability.

The problem with NCLB, as critics assert, is that Washington cannot be the nation’s school board, fixing tens of thousands of schools with remedies prescribed at a distance. States and districts do need flexibility. But they must be held to account for what they accomplish with that flexibility and the taxpayers’ money. The only accomplishment that really matters is students’ learning. Not restructuring schools, not overhauling teacher evaluation formulae, and not even adopting higher-sounding academic standards. There is not a policy or proposal in town—from the Democrats, Republicans, or administration—that takes student outcomes seriously.

We now have hard evidence that states have exacerbated differences in the achievement of disadvantaged students, with the guidance of ESEA. We also know that some states, both richer and poorer, are doing very good things for students in need. Washington should be investing time and money in understanding what is actually working and using that knowledge to write a new ESEA based on hard evidence and not political expedience. Meanwhile, states should be offered the opportunity to innovate, but not without being able to demonstrate that all students are progressing as a result. NAEP could be a metric. So could future student assessments like those based on the Common Core, if benchmarked to NAEP or international assessments. Meaningful student outcomes like high school graduation or college matriculation might also do. Until policymakers pay attention to what states are accomplishing or not accomplishing for students, there is no reason to expect states to move in the same direction. This was true when the noble experiment called ESEA was launched in 1965. It is every bit as true today.

-John Chubb

This blog entry first appeared on the Quick and the Ed.

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