Education Opinion

Tough-Minded Federal Accountability Is Dead: What Will the States Do Now?

By Marc Tucker — January 27, 2016 7 min read
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The age of federally driven school accountability is now dead. Only traces of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind legislation, the Obama administration’s signature education program Race to the Top and the waivers from No Child Left Behind that came with it are left. In their place is the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a new bipartisan agreement to roll back what everyone, in time, came to perceive as an overbearing and counterproductive role for the federal government in education.

In this blog I will share my interpretation of the events that led to the passage of No Child Left Behind and its progeny, the great shrinking of the federal role we have just seen and the nature of the challenge ahead. In several blogs that follow, I will put forward the outlines of a plan for states that wish to take advantage of their new freedom to build a state education system that is competitive with the best education systems in the world.

The new federal education law largely restores the status quo ante, the world before No Child Left Behind. The nation has spent 15 years going down a blind alley, while more and more countries’ education systems have been successfully redesigned to outperform ours, some by very wide margins.

At the time No Child Left Behind was passed, the federal role in education had been largely focused for 35 years on improving the education of the nation’s disadvantaged children. As the years went by, there was strong bipartisan support for this program. Early on in that history, the public and policy makers expressed a lot of confidence in the nation’s educators, and saw the problem largely in terms of lack of resources for disadvantaged students. They were inclined to trust professional educators’ judgment as to how best to use the increased funds.

But, over the years, that confidence eroded. It started with A Nation at Risk, the Reagan administration report that portrayed the nation’s schools as having fallen a long way from some standard they had formerly met. That charge was false. But, by 2000, the year No Child Left Behind was passed, the cost of educating an average student in the nation’s schools had more than doubled in the preceding 20 years after accounting for inflation, an enormous increase. But the performance of the nation’s high school students had not changed at all. Where had all the money gone? The new President, George W. Bush, charged educators with embracing the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” saying, in effect, that they had accepted the money but had never actually expected low-income, minority and handicapped students to perform much better. The Democrats agreed. Both parties were angry. The nation had lost confidence in its educators. Their solution was to hold them strictly accountable for the results of their work. The age of tough-minded accountability had begun with a vengeance.

The Bush administration tried to hold the schools accountable by imposing tough consequences for whole faculties if the schools did not meet expectations. The Bush administration’s goal of having every student proficient by 2014 was a fantasy and everyone knew it. As the deadline approached, entire states were populated with schools deemed failing. No Child Left Behind had become politically untenable.

Enter the Obama administration, which used the impending implosion to replace the discredited Bush plan for accountability with its own catastrophe. The Obama administration, with Race to the Top and the waiver process, decided instead to put their full weight behind the new Common Core State Standards, fund the development of new tests set to those standards, hold teachers individually accountable for the performance of their own students against the Common Core State Standards, implement the new tests and urge states to use teacher evaluations based on test results to fire teachers whose students did not perform satisfactorily.

The new administration pushed the states very hard to implement the new Common Core State Standards as fast as possible. So we soon learned that teachers were given instructional materials that were not aligned to the new standards. They were not given training that would have enabled them to teach the new standards well. They were not given time to work with their colleagues to develop the kinds of instructional practices the students would need to master the new standards. New tests were hastily developed that were poorly constructed and in many cases simply laughable. School administrators, scared that their students would not meet standards, instituted frequent testing regimes to check student progress toward proficiency. Schooling for many children became nothing but testing, with low-level, dumbed-down tests. Parents revolted. Teachers of many subjects were evaluated using data on the performance of other teachers of different subjects than the subjects they taught. Award-winning teachers were fired. Teachers widely regarded as highly competent by their colleagues retired early in protest against the new accountability system. Superior teachers of inner-city minority children quit because anyone who chose to teach in those schools was more likely than other teachers to be fired under the new system. Young people in high school took one look at all this and decided not to become teachers. Applications to teachers colleges plummeted.

Is it any wonder that this Congress, which can agree on very little, agreed to get rid of this fiasco? Now everyone is declaring victory. But the problems that led an infuriated Congress to insist that the country get good value for the money spent on vulnerable children are still with us. The Every Student Succeeds Act requires the states to have standards and it requires them to administer tests set to those standards at times stipulated by the legislation. And it requires them to hold their schools accountable for their performance. But the states are free to set their own standards, create their own tests, set the pass points for them in the basement if they wish, and do little or nothing to hold their schools accountable. Some of these state efforts require federal approval, but the political circumstances in which the bill was written make the approval function virtually toothless. The Congress acted as if the problem were an overreaching federal government, and solved it by curbing its powers.

The victory we have achieved is hollow. No Child Left Behind created the political context in which it became possible for the states to develop national standards and for the federal government to provide funds to the states to create national tests to measure student progress against those standards. These are vital ingredients of high-performing education systems. The irony is that implementation of the high standards so ardently desired by the last two administrations has been so flawed and so injured by the insistence of these same administrations on tough-minded teacher accountability—something no top-performing nation has done and a policy that the Obama administration was repeatedly warned against—that the standards and testing system they birthed has itself been gravely wounded.

While the United States has been fiddling with the implementation of poorly designed accountability systems constructed in anger at our teachers, a large and swiftly growing number of other countries have succeeded in redesigning their education systems to greatly improve student achievement, provide much more equity for vulnerable students and do all this at much lower cost. Whereas the United States once had the best-educated workforce in the industrialized world, its workforce is now among the world’s least well educated. This is the true American catastrophe, the one we should all have our eyes fixed on now. It will sink us if we do not fix it.

The successful attacks on the Common Core and on common tests tied to the Common Core and the greatly weakened legitimacy for a strong—but sensible—federal role in education are not the only casualties of the last 15 years of policy. The worst is the effect on teachers and the teaching profession: the erosion of public support for them and their work, the image of teachers as under attack from every quarter, the plummeting applications to teachers colleges, the flight of teachers from schools serving disadvantaged students and from the profession generally, the fall in teachers’ salaries relative to those of others and the attacks on their benefits. No nation has ever improved student achievement by subjecting its teachers to continuous, unrelenting attack. We have not actually returned to the status quo ante. The costs of tough-minded teacher accountability policies have been incalculable and will be with us for a long time.

It is now up to the states. Many, free to revert to the status quo ante, will do so. Most will pursue the same silver bullet solutions that have gotten us nowhere for decades.

Much depends on the few states that will be able to reach beyond the immediate challenges they face, forge a new consensus on broadly shared prosperity as their state goal, and redesign their whole education system so the vast majority of their students can reach the standards they will need to reach to achieve that goal. In my next few blogs, I will lay out an agenda for those states, the states on which all of us now depend.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers 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.