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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Reform will continue, but the federal government will lead from behind. As well it should.

  6. 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.

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