Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

What’s Missing in Obama’s Education Plan?

By Daniel M. Koretz — April 27, 2009 4 min read

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

School & District Management Live Event Education Week Leadership Symposium
Education Week's Premier Leadership Event for K12 School & District Leaders.
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
Law & Courts Webinar
The Future of Criminal Justice Reform: A Sphere Education Initiative Conversation
America’s criminal justice system is in crisis and calls for reform are dominating the national debate. Join Cato’s Sphere Education Initiative and Education Week for a webinar on criminal justice and policing featuring the nation’s
Content provided by Cato Institute
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
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama 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 Wanted: Superintendents to Lead Districts Through the End of a Pandemic
Former superintendents say there are signs when it's time to move on. Their replacements are more likely to be greenhorns, experts say.
4 min read
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner speaks at a news conference at the school district headquarters in Los Angeles on March 13, 2020. Beutner will step down as superintendent after his contract ends in June, he announced Wednesday, April 21, 2021.
Austin Beutner, the superintendent of Los Angeles Unified, will step down after his contract ends in June.
Damian Dovarganes/AP
School & District Management Has COVID-19 Led to a Mass Exodus of Superintendents?
This year has been exhausting for superintendents. Some experts say they're seeing an unusually high number of resignations this spring.
5 min read
Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Janice K. Jackson, right, speaks on Feb. 11, 2021, during a news conference at the William H. Brown Elementary School in Chicago. In-person learning for students in pre-k and cluster programs began Thursday, since the district's agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union was reached.
Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Janice K. Jackson, right, announced earlier this week that she would depart the school system. Jackson, who assumed the superintendency in 2018, has worked for more than 20 years in CPS.
Shafkat Anowar
School & District Management Most Schools Offer at Least Some In-Person Classes, According to Feds' Latest Count
A majority of 4th and 8th graders had at least some in-person schooling by March, but inequities persisted.
3 min read
Image shows empty desks in a classroom.
Chris Ryan/OJO Images
School & District Management Opinion Education Researchers Should Think More About Educators: Notes From AERA
Steve Rees, founder of School Wise Press, posits AERA reflects a community of researchers too focused on what they find interesting.
4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty