Learning from No Child Left Behind

Tuesday, April 14, 2009
John E. Chubb

As President Barack Obama and Congress work to reverse the worst economic slide since the Great Depression, it is important that the nation’s education problems remain a top priority.

Economic growth depends evermore strongly on the quality of education: the stronger a nation’s education system, the greater the returns in the international marketplace. The president, clearly appreciating this, has won support for an $800 billion economic stimulus plan that promises to boost federal education spending in the short run and the long by tens of billions of dollars a year—doubling federal support for public schools. But this spending will be a missed opportunity if it only staves off the financial crisis and does not promote fundamental school reform. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act can and will help guide this massive infusion of funds but for how long? NCLB, which is authorized by Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and is operating under a temporary authorization, needs to be reauthorized.

Arne Duncan, the new secretary of education, indicates that NCLB’s reauthorization is a top priority for the administration but has not yet set a schedule for getting it done. What should the administration do?

In anticipation of the challenges facing the new administration, and NCLB’s critical role in education in the United States, the Hoover Institution Task Force on K–12 Education took up this question in 2008, giving the law as much time as possible to bring issues to the surface, self-correct and, otherwise prove its mettle. As members of the task force, we had studied the law during its early days and written in Within Our Reach: How America Can Educate Every Child, that NCLB had historic potential but also significant weaknesses that we urged policy makers to address. In the years since, the U.S. Department of Education has worked to ameliorate some of those issues. More important, the law has developed a track record that permits a more rigorous examination of its effects. Six years of tests have piled up since NCLB became law. Researchers have begun more nuanced analyses. The task force reviewed the data, the extant research, and the direct evidence of NCLB’s consequences. We also considered the more abundant evidence on the principles on which NCLB rests: accountability, transparency, school choice, standards, teacher effectiveness, and so forth. We debated vigorously on most issues and came to the conclusions we share here.

Research has made it abundantly clear that teachers are the most important school-based determinant of student achievement.

Several of those conclusions stand out. First, the nation is making academic progress. Student achievement is increasing after a generation of stagnation, especially for the disadvantaged students that NCLB sought most directly to help. Second, as students are learning, we are discovering more about what truly works to raise student achievement. Third, although it would be premature to ascribe achievement gains directly to NCLB, the principles on which NCLB are based provide an empirically sound foundation for serious school reform. Fourth, NCLB contains elements of unfairness, some of its provisions do not work nearly as well as they could, and at least one provision does not work at all. Finally, NCLB should be reauthorized but with major defects corrected. We have outlined with ten lessons to be learned and recommendations for improvement.

Every member of the Task Force on K–12 Education supports those principles and (with one exception) endorsed the package of recommendations shared here. That does not mean that all task force members endorsed every element of every recommendation; they did not. But they did support the analysis and recommendations overall, reflecting confidence in both NCLB and in the larger process of fundamental reform of which NCLB is a part.

Eight years into the NCLB era, the United States is still very much at risk educationally. There must be no confusion about this point.

Only one task force member chose not to endorse the overall report, though she supported various recommendations: Diane Ravitch, historian with New York University, whose views on NCLB are being published in the May 2009 issue of Education Next. Reforming an institution as venerable as public education is inevitably difficult. Disagreement and opposition are par for the course. Controversy comes with the territory. Public education is changing and for the better. NCLB did not begin the change and will not end it. But NCLB is part of the longer process that is addressing the nation’s lagging achievement at its core. The nation should take pride in the difficult decisions already made, learn from that experience, correct clear mistakes, and continue down the path that NCLB has helped to blaze. The nation and our children will be better off for it.

The following are our lessons and recommendations for enhancing NCLB:

  1. Academic standards are critical to raising student achievement, but the disparities among state standards and the weakness of most state standards, unfortunately encouraged by NCLB, are bad for students. NCLB should be amended to promote the development and implementation of a voluntary system of national academic standards.
  2. NCLB laudably asks that “no child” go uneducated. Yet the law gives schools no credit in its adequate yearly progress calculations for students that make academic progress below and above a state’s proficiency threshold, thereby discouraging schools from paying equal attention to the education of all students. NCLB should be amended to give schools credit for academic growth all along the proficiency continuum, bottom to top, and states should be provided with incentive grants to develop online adaptive tests to reliably test those students well below grade level and well above. Schools should also receive financial rewards for those students they help to achieve at the highest levels. Finally, states should be provided incentive grants to develop online adaptive tests to provide the most reliable tests possible for those students well below grade level and well above.
  3. The evidence is decisive: accountability works. But NCLB’s accountability provisions could work better. Effective accountability reinforces performance standards with appropriate incentives and sanctions. NCLB’s accountability is too blunt an instrument, imposing the same regimen of escalating annual incentives and sanctions on a wide range of school performances. Schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress because of the performance of one subgroup should not be treated the same as schools that fail most of their students. NCLB should be amended to provide a simple and differentiated system of incentives and sanctions. The U.S. Department of Education should be further empowered to support the system by maintaining on its website a user-friendly national database of the accountability status of every school in the nation.
  4. Students need a rich and rigorous curriculum to succeed in the twenty-first century, yet by focusing on only reading and math, NCLB has discouraged curricular depth and breadth. NCLB should be amended to require that history (United States and world) and science be tested annually in grades three through eight and once in high school. As with reading and math, tests should be based on explicit standards of the knowledge and skills that constitute proficiency at each grade level. Test scores should be reported to parents and communities in publicly accessible school report cards. States should be free to set their own standards in these subjects, and scores should not count toward adequate yearly progress. Accountability in these neglected subject areas will be enhanced by making performance transparent.
  5. Information is a powerful force that can generate positive change without any government prescription. NCLB deserves credit for making school performance much more transparent to families and communities through annual school report cards with mandatory performance indicators and parental notification of school failure, among other measures. NCLB could do much better, however, by ensuring that states provide valuable information, such as the effectiveness of individual teachers. NCLB should be amended to require states to build comprehensive education information systems that not only measure annual student academic growth but link individual teachers, administrators, and other school attributes to student growth. Modest matching grants should be added to Title I to support state data systems so that NCLB could make the most important determinants of student achievement much more transparent.
  6. Research has made abundantly clear that teachers are the most important school-based determinants of student achievement and that traditional measures of teacher quality, such as credentials and education, have little or nothing to do with such achievement. NCLB’s teacher-quality provisions—“Highly Qualified Teachers”—are based on largely faulty credentialing premises and have been implemented in bad faith. Legislators should scrap those provisions and replace them with state incentive grants to pilot programs that seek to raise teacher effectiveness by measuring it with value-added student achievement metrics or other outcome-based measures and rewarding outstanding performances with financial incentives.
    NCLB should be amended to promote the development and implementation of a voluntary system of national academic standards.
  7. NCLB’s school choice provision is not working. Students aren’t using it, and schools are not concerned about losing students if they fail them. The premise of choice is nonetheless sound: ample evidence indicates that choice has raised achievement and that it is sound policy to offer students in failing schools a way out. The problem is that NCLB offers too few choices with too little time to access them. Legislators should accelerate student eligibility to year one of their schools’ “needs-improvement’’ status (two consecutive years of not making adequate yearly progress goals) and expand the choices available to families to include any public school in their district, regardless of the receiving school’s adequate yearly progress status, any public school in any other school district in the state, and any private school in the district. NCLB should also try to expand the availability of charter schools in districts with especially high rates of failure by offering start-up grants. Finally, NCLB should keep the choice options open to families for a full year after eligibility first occurs.
  8. Tutoring students individually or in small groups is one of the most effective and well-established means of raising achievement. NCLB recognizes this and offers tutoring– or Supplementary Education Services (SES)–to students in schools that need improving. Unfortunately, that sensible solution is not working as well as it could or reaching as many students as it should. As with choice, school districts have been reluctant SES participants, impeding the access of private tutors that the law correctly hoped to make available to disadvantaged families, arguing that districts can help their students more effectively and less expensively than private tutors. NCLB should be amended to offer SES to students sooner (in year two of needs-improvement) and to make the market for SES work more effectively. Districts and states (for the benefit of rural districts) should be allowed to be SES providers, regardless of adequate yearly progress status. Simultaneously, NCLB should guarantee private providers access to school facilities, applications for eligible students, and the opportunity to communicate to families so that districts, states, and private providers can compete for parental services on a level playing field. To help ensure academic quality, NCLB should require that districts collect and distribute to eligible families audits of pre- and postassessment data on all providers, public and private.
    Students need a rich and rigorous curriculum to succeed in the twenty-first century.
  9. Some schools are too bad for any child to have to attend. NCLB recognized this with its call for “restructuring” of schools in year six of needs-improvement. Restructuring, however, has had a very mixed track record, partly because of the undifferentiated group of schools that may find themselves chronically missing adequate yearly progress goals–some massively deficient, others barely missing–and the reluctance of states to force all schools to take the same drastic measures. Yet some states have simply taken a more lax approach to failure than others. NCLB is partly to blame for this state of affairs because its restructuring requirements are vague. NCLB should be amended so that, with its new differentiated accountability system, only massively deficient schools are identified in year six as requiring restructuring. Those schools should have three well-defined restructuring options: change the school’s governance by becoming a charter school; delegate management of the school to an external manager, either not for profit or for profit; or make a wholesale change of school staff, meaning the principal and 100 percent of the teachers–no exception.
  10. Raising achievement levels is too important to every child and to the nation to be viewed as anything but urgent. Enough is known about teaching and schooling to believe that most students can achieve reasonable grade- level standards. NCLB set an ambitious goal of universal proficiency by 2014. That goal should not be changed unless a state is willing to adopt the new, voluntary national standards of college and career readiness or demonstrate that its own standards satisfy those rigorous conditions. If a state does adopt new standards, we propose extending the deadline by six years, half the time line set when NCLB was adopted, requiring universal proficiency by 2020.

The final lesson for policy makers is straightforward. The nation has been making progress in reading and math since the 1990s. Gains in achievement and reducing achievement gaps, inadequate though they may be, represent clear progress–and increasingly clear evidence that the strategies embodied in No Child Left Behind are having the right effect. We know from substantial research into No Child Left Behind’s various components– whether choice or teacher quality or tutoring or any of its other key elements–that No Child Left Behind is based on sound strategies. Those strategies can and should be improved. Doing so should increase and accelerate their positive effects on achievement. Policy makers should aim to reform and reauthorize No Child Left Behind as quickly as possible, ideally during the 2009 legislative session.

Components of the No Child Left Behind Act

  1. Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP): This measurement allows the U.S. Department of Education to determine how every public school and school district in the country is performing academically according to results on standardized tests. All kindergarten through twelfthgrade schools are required to demonstrate AYP in the areas of reading/language arts, mathematics, and either graduation rates, for high schools, or attendance rates, for elementary and middle/ junior high schools.
  2. Supplemental Educational Services (SES): The district is required to offer free tutoring services to students that receive free and/or reduced-price meals and who attend schools that have not met stated standards by the third and fourth year of the NCLB program.
  3. Needs Improvement: Did not make AYP in one area for two consecutive years. Among the consequences, the school must publicly report or notify parents of its status; develop and implement an improvement plan; and set aside 10 percent of its Title I allocation for professional development. The school is also placed on a “needs-improvement list” meaning that it must meet adequate yearly progress goals for two years to get off the list.
  4. Corrective Action: For schools that have not met NCLB standards by the third year of the program, the district must provide at least one of the following: (a) replace the school staff who are deemed relevant to the school not making adequate progress; (b) restructure the internal organization of the school; (c) provide scientifically researchbased professional development that is likely to improve academic achievement of low-performing students; (d) implement a new curriculum, with appropriate professional development to support its implementation; (e) lengthen the school year or school day; (f) significantly decrease management authority at the school; or (g) appoint one or more outside experts to advise the school.
  5. Public School Choice: Families with students at schools on the state’s needs improvement list must be offered the option of transferring their student to another school not on the list.