Five Thoughts About NCLB on its Tenth Anniversary

The federal law that everybody loves to hate turns ten on Sunday. Here’s what to think about it:

    • It worked!

The Accountability Plateau coverAs Mark Schneider shows in his recent paper for Fordham—and as Eric Hanushek and others demonstrated before him—poor, minority, and low-achieving students made huge progress in math, and sizable progress in reading, during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Their most recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicate all-time highs for most grades and subjects. These students are typically performing two grade levels ahead of where their peers were fifteen years ago in math, and are reading at least one grade level higher. So how to explain these historic gains? While we can’t draw causal conclusions from NAEP, we can make educated guesses. What’s clear is that states that adopted “consequential accountability” in the nineties saw big test-score jumps, and the late-adopter states saw similar progress once No Child Left Behind kicked into action. So, while other factors could have been in play, too (such as efforts to reduce class size or the cessation of the crack-cocaine epidemic), there’s a pretty good case that testing and accountability succeeded in spurring higher student achievement, at least at the bottom of the performance spectrum.

  • But it couldn’t work forever. As Schneider argues, the test-score gains sparked by NCLB-style accountability appear to have hit a plateau. We’re back to anemic progress in most grades and subjects, particularly in the states (like Texas) that embraced testing and accountability first. That shouldn’t be too surprising. While the initial pressure (and shame) provided by consequential accountability appears to have changed behavior at the district and school level, after a while being called a “failing school” loses its sting. Furthermore, holding “schools” accountable has rarely equaled holding individuals accountable—real-live teachers and principals who might lose their jobs. Once it became clear that NCLB was all bark and no bite, schools could return to the status quo ante.
  • The trade-offs are real. The good news is that we’ve seen enormous progress for our lowest-achieving students. The bad news is that we’ve seen languid progress for our highest achievers. The good news is that math scores are way up and, to a lesser degree, reading scores are up, too (especially for poor and minority kids). The bad news is that history and science have been squeezed out of the elementary school curriculum, particularly in high-poverty schools. Whether these trade-offs were worth it depends on your point of view. Personally, I’d prefer a policy that aims for more balance: achievement gains across the performance spectrum, not just at the bottom; and a more holistic view of what it means for students to be well educated. Literacy and numeracy are (obviously) not enough.
  • Pet ideas from both parties crashed and burned. The Democrats gave the country the “white elephant” gift of the “highly qualified teachers” mandate, a policy that succeeded in turning the nation’s teachers against NCLB from the very beginning; managed to tie up myriad schools (including charters) in all manner of red tape; and gravely threatened Teach For America, one of the most promising reforms of the NCLB era. From the Republicans we got “supplemental educational services,” a.k.a. free tutoring. This was more of an impulse than a fleshed-out idea. It was never clear whether SES was meant to be a sanction for failing districts (if you don’t improve your test scores, we’ll take some of your Title I money away from you); a serious effort at parental choice; or a way to “extend” learning time for needy kids. Regardless, its entire design was predicated on cooperation from school districts, which were responsible for facilitating the flow of funds away from their coffers and into the hands of nonprofit and for-profit providers. As my Italian grandmother would have said, “Fatta chance.
  • It’s time for something new. On this point, virtually everybody agrees. But what should the next phase of education reform entail? The contours are now taking shape. First, there’s agreement that, for accountability to be real, it has to be placed upon real-live people, not just amorphous “schools.” That means, first and foremost, holding teachers accountable for their performance. Thus the interest in: more sophisticated teacher-evaluation systems, tenure reform, performance pay, and all the rest. Second, there’s broad consensus that we need to balance the “tough love” approach of accountability with the “helping hand” of capacity-building: Providing teachers with tools like a coherent curriculum—linked to the new Common Core standards—so they don’t have to make it all up on their own. And third, we can all glimpse the promise of digital learning, if technology can be harnessed effectively and if the political and governance roadblocks can be removed. But what’s the appropriate (and politically feasible) federal role in all of this? In all of these reforms, Uncle Sam’s involvement will be—and should be—minimal. The political thirst for aggressive federal involvement in education has been quenched, and the dollars to fund it spent. Plus these “next wave” reforms require nuance, care, and thoughtfulness to get them right—attributes not associated with Uncle Sam. In other words, reform will continue, but the federal government will lead from behind. As well it should.

Happy birthday, No Child Left Behind. And here’s hoping that you don’t make it to eleven.

-Michael Petrilli

This post also appeared on Flypaper.

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