Equal Scrutiny

Why private-sector accountability should be part of the NCLB reauthorization.

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For several decades, the topic of educational accountability has dominated K-12 policy discussions. The issue is again heating up as Congress considers the reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The six principles of NCLB redesign outlined in the “discussion draft” released by the House Education and Labor Committee all focus in one way or another on incentives for holding public schools and public officials accountable.

In the debates so far, there has been little talk about the track record of NCLB in holding private firms accountable for achievement improvements. Private firms include providers of mandated after-school tutoring, those that contract to manage the operations of schools requiring corrective action under the law, and those that contract with districts to operate charter schools. To date, in the reauthorization discussions about the effectiveness of NCLB as an accountability tool, the performance of these firms has not received the same scrutiny as the performance of public agencies. Here are several reasons for making discussions of private-sector performance part of the reauthorization.

Private firms are benefiting financially from the accountability mandates of NCLB. Private firms long have been important suppliers to government agencies for instructional services and products. Funds from previous iterations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act have been used to pay for curriculum and professional development, for example. No Child Left Behind, however, has introduced several changes in the access of private firms to federal education funds and in government’s protection of the right of private firms to these funds. Rather than simply being an allowable expense, in effect giving public agencies the option of using private suppliers, the No Child Left Behind law has introduced provisions that guarantee private firms the right to these revenues. For example, under the supplemental-educational-services, or SES, provisions of the law, school districts are required to set aside money for private firms selling after-school tutoring. In addition, unless they have a waiver from the federal government, districts that do not make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, are excluded from being providers of these services, in effect giving private firms greater access to these funds.

Although the No Child Left Behind law is almost 6 years old, there has been virtually no consistent, or consistently rigorous, research on the effects of its mandated supplemental educational services.

The NCLB legislation defines supplemental educational services as “additional academic instruction designed to increase the academic achievement of students in low-performing schools,” and indicates that they “must be high-quality, research-based, and specifically designed to increase student achievement.” (U.S. Department of Education, 2003, Aug. 22) [PL 107-110, Sec. 1116(e)(12)(C)]

These services, if designed well, could be a useful strategy for narrowing the achievement gap and improving educational outcomes and opportunities for poor and minority students. Why? Because we know from existing research on non-NCLB after-school programming that, when students have options for high-quality supplemental-learning opportunities outside of school, they also tend to have higher academic achievement. Further, we know that this resource—quality after-school programming—is unequally distributed. Low-income and minority students have less access than their more advantaged peers. So, in principle, the idea of using ESEA funds to provide high-quality out-of-school learning opportunities makes sense, and is supported by some research.

Supplemental educational services thus could be a way of providing low-income students with more options for high-quality after-school programming, but if this is to happen, we need to evaluate these programs. Despite the significant amount of Title I funding that is being directed into this program, research provides little evidence about its benefits for low-income and minority students. The problem is that, although the law is almost 6 years old, there has been virtually no consistent, or consistently rigorous, research on the effects of supplemental educational services.

Some relevant studies have been conducted by school districts (Minneapolis, Chicago, and Los Angeles, for example). And the Center for Research in Educational Policy has conducted an evaluation of SES implementation in Tennessee. A recent study by the American Institutes for Research, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, found significant positive effects on student achievement. But the other evaluations found either that the program has limited positive effects on student achievement, or none at all. These evaluations lay useful methodological groundwork for future studies on learning gains under SES. But the bottom line is that the research base is still too thin to assess the relationship between the SES intervention and learning gains.

What implementation research exists suggests that there are problems in the design of the law. Under this design, states and local school districts are primarily responsible for monitoring the quality of supplemental educational services, and many lack the capacity to do so. Providers can be removed from state lists if they fail to contribute to student achievement. Yet several implementation studies suggest that fewer than half of all states use any form of test-score data to monitor the quality of services provided, relying instead on annual site visits. Very few report actually removing providers from state lists because of infractions or lack of demonstrated effectiveness.

SES providers must be closely monitored to ensure that all students have equal access to high-quality programming.

Further, in spite of what we know, many important questions about the nature of the instructional intervention under the supplemental-educational-services program remain unanswered. Is the curriculum connected to what students are learning during the school day? Is it connected to what parents desire or think is important? Are students’ various instructional needs being met (for example, those of special education and English-language learners)? Beyond formal teaching credentials (if instructors have to have them), what are the qualifications of the instructors providing the curriculum?

The system for holding SES providers accountable for academic outcomes currently is much less rigorous and more ambiguous than adequate-yearly-performance requirements for schools. For example, a provider’s record of academic outcomes is identified as only one of several criteria that states may use in provider screening, monitoring, and evaluation. States are neither required nor encouraged to adopt a single assessment template for all providers. As a result, the criteria used to evaluate providers can vary widely even within a single district. Finally, while the law requires the SES curriculum to be aligned with state standards, it explicitly forbids districts from imposing requirements on the design of a provider's program. In short, what is mandated by the law in terms of monitoring program quality is significantly at odds with what it enables.

For these and other reasons, discussions of strengthening accountability under No Child Left Behind must examine and reconsider the contradiction between the high-stakes accountability imposed on public agencies and the more limited measures for holding private firms, such as SES providers, accountable for their contributions to student achievement. As important, SES providers must be closely monitored to ensure that all students, in particular English-language learners and students with special education needs, have equal access to high-quality programming. This task is made more urgent by the fact that more students will become eligible for supplemental services with each passing year, and, as they do, greater amounts of funding will be dedicated to the policy.

Vol. 27

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An earlier version of this Commentary should have said that the No Child Left Behind Act requires the SES curriculum to be aligned with state standards and that it explicitly forbids districts from imposing requirements on the design of a provider's program.

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