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Thank NCLB I for the (Interrupted?) Birth of Practical Evaluation

Pittsburgh's decision to hire for-profit research firm Mathematica Policy Research Inc. to evaluate the efficacy of Harcourt's Everyday Math in the city’s public schools is happening for one reason. Program results matter. The reason they matter is the present No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement that schools make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) towards 100% student proficiency in key subjects by 2014 or their students will be offered a range of help – and, more important, the adults in those schools will face a series of unpleasant consequences.

NCLB I established a quantifiable “duty of care” for educators. Those educators, reinforced by NCLB’s requirement that federal funds be used only to purchase education programs grounded in Scientifically Based Research (SBR) (programs with positive evidence based on rigorous evaluation) are pushing an increasing amount of responsibility on providers to support that duty.

The Pittsburgh study shows districts are willing to do some of this evaluation themselves. The less than stellar outcomes of most of the growing number of efficacy studies from the What Work’s Clearinghouse suggests that providers will need to start doing or sponsoring some themselves.

Brian Gill, who will manage the Everyday Math study, is the RAND Pittsburgh office researcher who led important evaluations on Edison – sponsored by that firm, the role of EMOs in Philadelphia – sponsored by outsiders for the school system, and on the state of Pittsburgh’s reform plans, including the effect of contractors America’s Choice and Kaplan.

Gill’s move from nonprofit RAND to for-profit Mathematica may be a sign that the private sector sees a growing market for education evaluations tied directly to the operational decisions of school districts. Something similar is occurring as the Parthenon Group’s public education team turns management consulting to school districts from a localized, ad hoc, pro-bono, "social-sciency" kind of activity into a line of business nationally.

I don’t think these markets will disappear under NCLB II, but at the reauthorization’s current course and speed, their growth will be arrested. Make it easy to make AYP - the direction Congress is surely heading, make SBR implementation even less important than it has been under Education Secretary's Paige and Spellings, and both schools and providers will not be so pressed to prove what works, or to organize in ways that maximize the prospects for success and drive more resources to the classroom.

As an aside:
The fact is that AYP and SBR as currently defined in the law constitute "stretch goals." There is no way every school or provider will ever meet them. So what? Every firm won't avoid losses that drive it out of business. Every kid won't get into Harvard. Everyone won't end up happy in their life. None the less, profitability, competitive admissions,
and the pursuit of happiness are understood to be important benchmarks for society as a whole - as hard as individual failure may be, society benefits from the overall advance they compel. And as was pointed out at the start of this posting the consequences of school failure are not hard on students - they get help when schools cant meet the duty of care; its the adults that feel the pain. I just have a hard time feeling terrible about this, although I sure understand why the affected adults want to gut NCLB I.

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