Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

What’s Missing in Obama’s Education Plan?

By Daniel M. Koretz — April 27, 2009 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

President Obama recently announced the broad outlines of a new education plan. (“Rigor, Rewards, Quality: Obama’s Education Aims,” March 18 and “Obama Echoes Bush on Education Ideas,” April 8, 2009.) This plan has much to praise but also three critically important omissions.

The new approach, like the No Child Left Behind Act and many of its precursors, relies on holding educators accountable for student performance on achievement tests. Indeed, it would make this element of education policy even more important—for example, by encouraging pay-for-performance plans. But the effects of the previous accountability programs have been disappointing: relatively small improvements on trustworthy indicators of performance, and many serious side effects. Why should we expect more of the president’s proposed variation on this familiar theme?

—Susan Sanford

BRIC ARCHIVE

To avoid replicating past mistakes, the president’s accountability program will have to follow three principles:

Make it broad. An assumption underlying the No Child Left Behind law was that if we initially focused accountability on just a couple of the critically important goals of education—math and reading achievement—the rest would hold steady and wait for us to turn to them later. Abundant evidence shows this assumption to be wrong. The activities and outcomes that do not count for accountability deteriorate, sometimes seriously, as schools shift resources from them to those few things that do count.

Many areas can suffer, including untested subjects, untested aspects of the subjects used in the accountability system, performing arts, student-initiated work, and physical activity. This should be no surprise. It is just common sense, and the same problem has been found in many other fields and in private firms as well as the public sector.

Confront score inflation. Commenting on the low performance standards currently set by some states, the New York Times columnist David Brooks quoted U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as saying: “States are lying to children. They are lying to parents. They’re ignoring failure.” Indeed. But there is another reason that the public has been misled: bogus increases in scores. Many schools have responded to test-based accountability in ways that inflate scores, increasing them more than actual gains in achievement warrant. This does not require cheating. Scores can be inflated by many honest—although undesirable—forms of test preparation.

While not ubiquitous, score inflation is common and sometimes very large, and it is likely to hurt the most disadvantaged students the most. This too should not be surprising, because similar problems have been found in many other fields. Yet policymakers continue to ignore this inconvenient fact and use inflated scores to support exaggerated claims of success.

We should admit that our ideas for a better educational accountability system, however thoughtful, are partly unproven, need evaluation, and may require midcourse corrections.

If we fail to confront the problem of score inflation, we will be left, once again, with an illusion of effective accountability. Dealing with inflation effectively will require numerous steps. We will need frequent auditing of score gains to ensure that improvements on the tests used for accountability are trustworthy indicators of improved learning. We have had a small number of audits over the past two decades, but these have been the exception rather than the rule because neither federal nor state reform programs have established an expectation, let alone a requirement, that this type of evaluation be conducted.

We need to monitor how educators prepare students for the accountability tests—whether they improve their instruction or resort to inappropriate forms of test preparation. We also need to evaluate new approaches to test design tailored to lessening inflation. The Obama administration’s goal of developing tests that focus more on higher-order skills is laudable, but it will not address the problem of score inflation.

Experiment and evaluate. This nation has tried numerous approaches to test-based accountability over the past several decades, but all of them have shared one essential trait: None has been based on sufficient evidence. They have been designed without enough hard information about their likely effectiveness and side effects. Once implemented, they have not been adequately evaluated. Scores on the accountability tests usually increase, and for a time we are greeted with claims of success. Eventually, less-encouraging data catch up with us—for example, scores on other tests less vulnerable to inflation, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress and international comparative studies. A crisis is declared, we make up a new accountability system, and the cycle begins anew.

This failure to rely on hard evidence hinders the improvement of policy and schooling, and the failure to monitor effects on children is unacceptable. We do not tolerate this in other policy areas (think of Vioxx). The administration should avoid the temptation to say, once again, that we have it right this time. We should admit that our ideas for a better educational accountability system, however thoughtful, are partly unproven, need evaluation, and may require midcourse corrections.

The upcoming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law should institute routine and rigorous evaluation of the program’s effects—evaluations that do not rely on potentially inflated test scores. It should also encourage states and large districts to experiment with innovative approaches to accountability, but with a price: evaluations that will tell the rest of us whether their systems should be terminated, modified, or emulated.

There is room to argue about how best to address these three principles. But a failure to address them will give us more of the same: a narrowed educational system, bogus claims of success, and children left behind.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 2009 edition of Education Week as What’s Missing in Obama’s Education Plan?

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Professional Development Webinar
Strategies for Improving Student Outcomes with Teacher-Student Relationships
Explore strategies for strengthening teacher-student relationships and hear how districts are putting these methods into practice to support positive student outcomes.
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Transform Teaching and Learning with AI
Increase productivity and support innovative teaching with AI in the classroom.
Content provided by Promethean
Curriculum Webinar Computer Science Education Movement Gathers Momentum. How Should Schools React?
Discover how schools can expand opportunities for students to study computer science education.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Will Schools Reopen Quickly After Hurricane Ian Passes? It Depends
Even before district leaders started shelter operations, they were getting asked when kids could return.
Jeffrey S. Solochek, Tampa Bay Times
3 min read
Beulah Stand, a sixth grade math teacher at John Hopkins, carries her pillow and a suitcase into the Pinellas County special needs shelter at John Hopkins Middle School, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022 in St. Petersburg, Fla., as Florida's west coast prepares for Hurricane Ian. Stand will be staying at the center to work during the storm. The evacuation center, which is only for people with special needs, has a capacity of over 700 people.
Beulah Stand, a 6th grade math teacher at John Hopkins, carries her pillow and a suitcase into the Pinellas County special needs shelter at John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg, Fla., as Florida's west coast prepares for Hurricane Ian. Stand will be staying at the center to work during the storm. The evacuation center, which is only for people with special needs, has a capacity of over 700 people.
Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times via AP
School & District Management How District Leaders Can Make Sure Teachers Don't Miss the Loan-Forgiveness Deadline
Many teachers and other public employees may not know they qualify for a student loan-forgiveness waiver that has an Oct. 31 deadline.
4 min read
Young adult woman cutting the ball and chain labeled "Debt" which is attached as the tassel hanging from a graduate's mortarboard
iStock/Getty Images Plus
School & District Management Download A Visual Guide to Nonverbal Communication (Download)
Understanding nonverbal communication can help you improve interactions and get your message across.
1 min read
v42 8SR Nonverbal Communication Share Image
Gina Tomko/Education Week and Getty
School & District Management Ensure Your Staff Gets the Message: 3 Tips for School Leaders
School staff are inundated with information. Here's a few ways to ensure they will actually hear you.
3 min read
Image showing a female and male in business attire connecting speech bubble puzzle pieces.
iStock/Getty Images Plus