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Distinguishing Tests From Accountability in NCLB

There are some wild intellectual gymnastics on display among those Beltway types who are scrambling to keep Senator Lamar Alexander, Representative John Kline, and their Republican allies from dialing back the federal role in education to something more appropriate and constructive. These advocates (mostly located at left-leaning advocacy groups and Arne Duncan's U.S. Department of Education) acknowledge that NCLB is deeply flawed ... and then insist that efforts to overhaul it constitute a "retreat." For instance, Duncan was a case study in confusion on Monday, when he first decried NCLB as "broken" and unduly "prescriptive"—and then insisted that Congress should fix the law while keeping all its major elements ... and adding new ones!  Now I'm confused.

The way out of this thicket isn't that hard. In fact, it's the design principle for Alexander's draft Senate bill (released yesterday). The principle is that transparency is a good thing. Identifying schools that need to improve is a good thing. And doing something to help schools improve and/or to give new options to those students in them is a good thing. But it's destructive to bundle these in the way NCLB did. Moreover, as I've long argued, only the first of these is something the federal government is well-positioned to wade into.

Checker Finn and I wrote a piece for Education Next on all this back in 2007, and I'll just quote from that for a moment—because I think we got it right then and I have to go teach class now.

Enacted in 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) began with the resounding promise that every U.S. schoolchild will attain "proficiency" in reading and math by 2014. Noble, yes, but also naive, misleading, and in some respects dysfunctional. While nobody doubts that the number of "proficient" students in America can and should increase dramatically from today's woeful level, no educator believes that universal proficiency in 2014 is attainable. Only politicians promise such things. The inevitable result is weary cynicism among school practitioners and a "compliance" mentality among state and local officials.

In hindsight, NCLB's passage was less about improving schools or fostering results-based public sector accountability than about declaring fealty to a gallant but utopian ambition, one that the statute welded to a clumsy, heavy-handed set of procedural mandates.

NCLB is, in fact, a civil rights manifesto masquerading as an education accountability system. Its grand ambition provided a shaky basis for policymaking, rather as if Congress asserted in the name of energy reform that America will no longer need to import oil after 2014 or fought crime by declaring that by that date all U.S. cities would be peaceable kingdoms.

NCLB's particular brand of hubris has solid precedent. Picture John Kennedy pledging in 1961 that "America will get 75 percent of the way to the moon by decade's end." Or former President Bush and the governors solemnly declaring in 1990 that the U.S. would be 12th in the world in math and science by the year 2000. Indeed, it's practically un-American to aim for anything less than the top.

Moreover, NCLB's backers can legitimately argue that they had already spent nearly two decades asking state and local officials and education leaders to address mediocre school performance and stubborn race- and class-linked inequities in educational outcomes. In that light, the passion-drenched unseriousness infusing NCLB is forgivable, even honorable.

And NCLB indeed has virtues: it produced long-overdue school transparency, focused unprecedented attention on achievement, created urgency where lethargy had ruled, and offers valuable political cover to determined superintendents and principals.

Kennedy's promise was kept in just eight years, when it turned out that money, brainpower, and determination could surmount the technical challenges posed by a moon landing. The "first in the world" goal, however, was not attained and quickly became the stuff of mockery.

The NCLB accountability system was adopted with scant attention to principles of sound public-sector accountability, how the statute's many pieces fit together, or whether they could be competently deployed through the available machinery. Meanwhile, the statute's rhetoric invites a backlash that may not only gut the law, but also discredit the increasingly fruitful goal-setting, school-changing, choice-conferring results that have marked education reform since 1983.

As the calendar rolls toward 2011 and 2012, and sharp increases in proficiency rates become necessary, the number of schools failing to make adequate progress will rise precipitously. Unless current standards are eased, thousands of schools that communities had long regarded as effective are going to be tarnished. Claims of moral urgency and vague paeans to accountability are unlikely to prove much of a match for community pride and fears for property values. Moreover, many of those schools, while doubtless less effective than they ought to be for at least some kids, are pretty decent and far better than the urban-disaster schools, where the case for mandated interventions is unarguable.

There's nothing wrong with lofty ambitions. Yet political compromises meant that NCLB's grand aspirations were saddled with sputtering machinery and weak sanctions. Few Americans realize that, for states to keep their Title I dollars, they need only to set goals, administer tests, report results, and see that districts intervene in specified ways in low-performing schools. NCLB doesn't actually mandate that kids learn anything. If the kids don't learn, or if their schools don't improve, no sanctions follow (save possible embarrassment) so long as officials comply with the procedural requirements. The money keeps on flowing.

NCLB's architects thought they were devising an elaborate plan to alter the behavior of thousands of schools and millions of educators, drawing on a mix of goals, rewards, sanctions, choices, and sunlight. They overlooked the fact that effective behavior-changing regimens are rooted in realistic expectations and joined to palpable incentives and punishments; NCLB provides none of these.

Finally, for those who think a legislative compromise can or will address these problems by yielding federal guidelines and prescriptions that are sensitive to the challenges of doing this kind of accountability, well, I've a fabulous bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. But that's a discussion for another day. In the meantime, go take a look at Andy Rudalevige's terrific chapter from my 2012 book (with Andrew Kelly) Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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