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The Letter From: Where Provider Accountability Went Wrong

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For several weeks' the Letter has explored the proposition that accountability in public education requires standards, consequences and due process.

On paper, No Child Left Behind holds providers accountable for the value added by their offerings to student performance. Most providers must demonstrate evidence in the form of program evaluation under the law’s Scientifically Based Research (SBR) provisions; Supplementary Educational Service (SES) providers are held to its lower Research Based (RB) standard. Offerings that do not meet these standards are not eligible for purchase with federal fund allocated by NCLB to states, districts and schools. There is at least the inference of due process, in that the U.S. Department of Education and its state counterparts are required to develop rules, regulations, processes and administrative procedures for implementing the law’s provisions.

On the ground, it is hard to say that what the federal and state education agencies have implemented meets the definition of accountability I've proposed. The Department of Education has failed to convene the evaluation community for the purpose of recommending definitions, methods and measures on which the private sector can rely. It is unsurprising then, that as a matter of administrative practice, SBR covers everything from offerings subjected to third party evaluations, following the scientific method and state of the art statistical tools, covering hundreds of schools over many years, to those with evidence amounting to an essay claiming a relationship to a body of ostensibly relevant research.

It is hard to argue that NCLB intended something so broad that it has had no impact on anything sold to schools for perhaps a hundred years. Imagine a Food and Drug Administration formed to get tainted meat off the market, whose regulations couldn't close one meat packer.

Absent real standards, the consequences for providers with or without products, services or programs whose proof of efficacy is demonstrated by direct evaluation have been arbitrary and capricious. In the case of SES, many states seem to have gone from no review of program efficacy, straight to a much more rigorous take on SBR than the feds, and in the process arguably violating the law by leapfrogging the lower RB requirement. In the implementation of NCLB’s Reading First program, SBR amounted to the proclamation of a third- or fourth-level U.S Department of Education official. And as that fiasco demonstrated, the lack of due process has only been redressed by the Department’s Inspector General, the House and Senate Education Committees, and the Justice Department.

On the educator/Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) side of NCLB, thousand of schools feel a real impact from an Administration enforcement policy that amounted to "just say no" to any state agency requests for the slightest modification through the era of Rod Paige. Secretary Spellings has been more open, but is negotiating down from a very high bar. The result has been a potential demand for effective products, services and programs from the private sector.

On the demand side of the equation however, the Administration has hardly managed SBR and providers to incentivize the highest quality of supply. Indeed, both Paige and Spellings have made it difficult for providers with relevant capacities to survive, let alone thrive, let alone blow away the academically ineffective competition.

Who benefited from this approach to policy? Clearly not the firms who believed that NCLB’s SBR provisions would be implemented, nor the investors who bought into those firms because they believed the law would give them a competitive advantage over the entrenched players reviewed last week – the multinational publishers, grant-based nonprofit technical assistance providers, and independent consultants. In effect, NCLB did very little to change the k-12 market – except to create the new, unstable SES segment, and a new Reading First funding stream captured by the old line publishers. Firms committed to demonstrating efficacy through rigorous evaluation exist, but while their success might have something to do with the spirit of NCLB, it also happened despite the law’s administration.

This may also be heard as a podcast here.

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