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NCLB Isn't Going Anywhere

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With a large majority of the U.S. House of Representatives voting for substantial changes in the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), it seems the role of the federal government in the regulation of public schools will be significantly reduced. But does ESEA's proposed new name, the Every Student Succeeds Act, really spell the end of the substance of No Child Left Behind (NCLB)? And what does this mean for urban school reform?

First, this is clearly not the end of NCLB. The core of the law as it was passed and initially implemented--NCLB 1.0--was the federal expansion of high-stakes testing and the use of these scores to measure and reward equity test score improvement among disadvantaged populations. Schools failing to meet NCLB objectives were subject to various forms of turnaround strategies. These are the same principles as the House-passed bill, but with a diminished federal role. (Since that bill is likely to become law in very similar form, I'm going to talk about it as a law below.)

The shift from the federal to states and districts is significant, but the bill maintains the testing requirements and I doubt states are going to roll back the pressure or equity focus. For one thing, states had received such extensive federal waivers--under what I will call NCLB 2.0--that the strongest school accountability sanctions were almost never carried out. The new bill will therefore probably just formalize the current NCLB implementation on issues like school turnaround.

Also, the history of education policy is a steady upward trend in the level of testing and stakes, driven by many of the same state governments that the new bill--NCLB 3.0--puts back in the driver's seat.

Andy Smarick has made the important observation that the new law gives more power to districts and may actually reduce state authority in some ways. However, the legal changes he focuses on are fairly narrow. NCLB 3.0 still requires similar accountability systems and leaves most of the rest to state governments. It also maintains their authority for aggressive school intervention, at least after initial improvement attempts have been exhausted.

One key question is, who will be held accountable? While the amount of testing has continually increased, the target of accountability has evolved. It used to be that accountability was directed at students. As I've written elsewhere, if students did not pass they could be held back or prevented from graduating. That's still true in many states, but, starting in the 1990s and continuing through NCLB 1.0, the stakes shifted more toward schools.

What about high-stakes accountability for teachers? At least one commentator has argued that NCLB 3.0 will lead to a reduction in teacher accountability relative to NCLB 1.0, mostly because the new law is stripped of teacher quality provisions. But this assessment seems off. NCLB 1.0 did not include a focus on teacher evaluation and accountability and in fact actually dissuaded states from going this route. It was the 2009 passage of Race to the Top that shifted to individual teachers, and the NCLB waivers that extended them. In this respect, NCLB 1.0 and 2.0 were at odds with one another on teacher quality, with the former focusing on teacher credentials and the latter on teacher performance. Since NCLB 3.0 means the federal government cannot bargain with states for more aggressive teacher accountability, many states will probably return somewhat to a credential-based approach. Therefore, in this respect, NCLB 3.0 is a rejection of NCLB 2.0, but a return to NCLB 1.0.

In many states, especially those in the South, the new law means little. Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas, and Florida had more aggressive high-stakes testing than NCLB 1.0 required. There is very little discussion of NCLB in New Orleans, even though I think the law has rightfully focused the public discourse, here and nationally, more on equity concerns. NCLB had a bigger impact in other states that had not embraced test-based accountability and that is where we might see some policy reversals.

Smarick, in this piece, also mentioned potential threats to charter schools and specifically the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD), though the argument here seems mainly about concern that traditional school districts are strengthened, not that the law has any direct effect on charters and vouchers. For example, states appear to retain the authority to turn schools into charters if other approaches have failed. Also, charter schools have maintained their bipartisan support.

With the RSD, the concern seems to be that the new law may prevent states from allocating federal funding to such districts. However, the RSD is a state agency (as is the ASD in Tennessee) and not directly dependent on federal funds. Similarly, the federal law does not seem to affect the financial elements of the return of RSD schools to the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) or the ability of OPSB to encourage or force such moves. So, in Louisiana, the bigger issue continues to be about the recent elections, which will bring a Democrat, John Bel Edwards, into the governor's office. Like NCLB 3.0, he is positioning himself to largely maintain the status quo on charter schools, but to produce larger changes in the teacher evaluation and accountability system.

For the nation as a whole, NCLB 3.0 will probably mean most of the core ideas of NCLB 1.0--testing, school accountability, and a greater focus on equity--will remain with us. Sandy Kress, the Bush-Administration architect of the first NCLB, Chad Aldeman and others will likely get what they wish. The fact that states didn't initiate policies like those he created doesn't mean they will throw them out when given the chance. They were headed in this direction and inertia is a powerful thing. After all, look how long it took NCLB to be re-authorized. State legislatures and elected boards are in the same boat.

The new bill is also a substantial, though not complete, rejection of NCLB 2.0 under the Obama Administration. The Common Core roll back is underway, though I don't expect a complete unraveling, and the same goes for teacher accountability (a topic I'll take up in my next post), but neither of these was part of the original law.  The likely relaxing of teacher accountability also partly explains why Randi Weingarten (AFT) and Lily Eskelson (NEA) are pleased with the outcome.

Political prediction is getting increasingly difficult, but if history is any guide, the new law will be mostly a win for NCLB 1.0 and mostly a loss for NCLB 2.0.

Douglas Harris is a Professor of Economics, the Schleider Foundation Chair in Public Education, and founder and Director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans.

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