Education Chat

No Remedy Left Behind

Frederick M. Hess and Chester E. Finn Jr. took questions on issues raised in their new book, No Remedy Left Behind: Lessons from a Half-Decade of NCLB.

October 4, 2007

No Remedy Left Behind

Frederick M. Hess
, a resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute; and Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Janelle Callahan (Moderator):

Hello everyone and welcome to today’s live chat with Frederick M. Hess and Chester E. Finn Jr., authors of the new book No Remedy Left Behind: Lessons from a Half-Decade of NCLB. I’m Janelle Callahan, a research associate in the EPE Research Center, and I’ll be your moderator. There are lots of great questions already, so let’s get the discussion started.

Question from John Stallcup Co Founder APREMAT/USA:

Do you consider the widespread disparity between levels of proficiency on NAEP and what many states consider proficient to be the most glaring problem with NCLB?

Chester E. Finn Jr.:

The variability from state to state in notions of proficiency is a big problem, further underscored by Fordham’s and NWEA’s new study, “The Proficiency Illusion”. A big grownup country like the U.S. needs A standard and test, not fifty of them. I happen to think that the right target is somewhere around NAEP’s proficient, though I also do not believe that is a realistic target for 100% of kids. But think how much better we’d feel about ourselves as a country if, instead of 35% or so of our kids reading and doing math at that level, it were 70 or 80 or 85%. And think how much more competitive we’d be.

Question from Joseph Di Salvo, Adjunct Professor of Education at Santa Clara University:

If you were appointed and confirmed as the next U.S. Secretary of Education and you can begin from scratch what would you want to accomplish with a new ESEA?

Chester E. Finn Jr.:

It’s really nice at age 63 to want to play with my grandchildren rather than with the federal bureaucracy. ESEA will never “start from scratch”. Each generation is the descendant of the 1965 ancestor--and there have been what, maybe 7 generations since then. NCLB is the latest but it won’t be the last. Our book makes plenty clear--ten big recommendations--where the architects of a makeover might usefully start.

Question from Adele Trent,Teacher,Rosa Parks Elementary:

What do you consider the MAIN obstacle in the implementation of NCLB?

Frederick M. Hess:

I’d say the biggest is the awkward construction of the law itself. By borrowing machinery that was designed to disburse funds rather than to support educational accountability or school improvement, the law has thrust officials at the state, local, and school level into awkward positions that asks them to exercise skills and functions that they have historically lacked. The solution is to rethink and temper what NCLB asks officials to do as well as how it goes about doing it.

Question from Patrick Mattimore, Teacher, Saint Ignatius College Prep:

Do you think tying funding to national subject matter standards would be helpful and why are legislators such as Secretary Spellings and Senator Kennedy reticent to suggest them?

Chester E. Finn Jr.:

I cannot explain what goes on in their heads. I think what I’d do if I were czar is tie EXTRA funding (or regulatory relief) to a state’s willingness to join in some form of common or national standards in core subjects. It would, however, be voluntary for the states. Some will want to retain their own standards--good, bad or indifferent. I don’t see the U.S. forcing states into something like this. But many, I’d wager, could be tempted.

Question from Jack Elliot, Professor and Head, University of Arizona:

Is there any optimism to expect that the new NCLB act will embrace “Actual Student Achievement” in lieu of the current “Measured Student Achievement?”

Frederick M. Hess:

I suppose it depends on how one interprets “Actual Student Achievement.” Even NCLB’s staunchest supporters readily concede that its measures of proficiency don’t capture everything we care about-- they argue only that reading and math proficiency are critical skills in their own right and that they are useful proxies for overall educational quality. I think everyone would ideally like to construct a coherent accountability system that also attends more fully to the broader issue of educational quality-- the challenge is whether there is a feasible path to do so.

Question from mike:

Let’s suppose we were to poll a sample of middle aged folks and asked, “What was the most important (or profound) lesson you learned in school?” Do you think any of the responses would fall remotely close to the kinds of things NCLB emphasizes?

Chester E. Finn Jr.:

Surely they’d all mention the ability to read!

Question from Jody Richards teacher Harvest Elementary:

Do you feel that the Reading First initiative has hurt or helped reading programs in the U.S.? The drill and practice methods of this program were phased out in the 1940’s what is the purpose for bringing them back?

Chester E. Finn Jr.:

I’m a fan of Reading First, despite its political woes. The reading science on which it rests, far from having been “phased out”, is in fact the best current information regarding the reading instruction methods that work with the overwhelming majority of kids. I see it as the lineal descendant of Jeanne Chall, the National Reading Panel and any number of other true authorities on reading science.

Question from Paul Perrea, HQT Teacher--Physics, Computer Science, Russian--Hughes Center High School:

The Gerstner Report pointed out that the vast majority of teachers suffer from extremely low academic performance themselves. They have the lowest ACT scores, those few who take the SAT (usually required for more highly-selective universities) have low SAT scores. But the worst fact is that their GRE scores are so ridiculously low that the “Ed Schools” they attend do not even have minimum admission scores. Those “Ed Schools” most often just require that the test be taken. Is it any wonder there is so much resistance to teaching in a style that would require their students to be able to do well on assessments?

Frederick M. Hess:

I think it’s certainly the case that the professional preparation of teachers and the culture of schooling have historically looked askance at standardized assessment and external accountability. The skepticism on standardized assessment has both practical and philosophical roots, and I think both are evolving over time. I think there are good reasons to sympathize with those leery of teaching in a style that boosts test scores if tests are poorly designed or if school and district leaders are encouraging mindless practice as a response to low scores. On the other hand, such resistance is worrisome for obvious reasons. I think increasing acceptance of the value of assessment, efforts to improve the use of data to inform insutrction, and (hopefully) improvements in the quality of teacher preparation and testing and educational leadership will continue to reduce resistance over time.

Question from Denise Gold, President, Forest Hills Parents of Gifted Support:

Growth measures are inadequate for gifted children who demonstrate advanced proficiency for year-end goals at the beginning of the year. What policy changes are needed to address gifted students being “left behind”?

Chester E. Finn Jr.:

Super question, but I don’t see any reason why “growth measures” couldn’t work for gifted kids so long as what’s being measured is the amount of such a kid’s gain during the course of the year rather than the starting or ending point in relation to an arbitrary external standard

Question from Peggy Dickerson, Adjunt Professor:

I am teaching a class for aspiring educational administrators. During the next week, we will be exploring the basics of NCLB with particular application to a beginning administrator. What advice do you have for a Texas leader seeking to fulfill the requirements specifically in “hard to fill” teaching assignments?

Frederick M. Hess:

I’m loathe to give advice to those in the field on a question like this, because I think the circumstances depend enormously on the local teacher pool, state statute, and the school and district context. However, I’m very encouraged by how The New Teacher Project has helped a variety of districts tackle their HR challenges-- and would encourage examining some of their practices. I’d also encourage leaders to think proactively, about how they might recruit outside their typical talent pool, make full use of nontraditional routes, and develop compensation strategies that will attract geographical mobile candidates.

Question from Jim Kohlmoos, Knowledge Alliance:

What role, if any, should federally sponsored research play in delivery remedies and solutions to schools in need of improvement? What needs to change in the way research-based knowledge is created and applied to persistent problems?

Chester E. Finn Jr.:

I don’t much care whether quality education research is sponsored by the federal government or the Gates Foundation or General Electric or the State of Texas, so long as it gets done. The big issue in America isn’t getting research produced; it’s getting it applied. That works badly. Part of YOUR organization’s charge is to do something about that! Nobody INSIDE the government is going to solve this problem.

Question from Dick Allington, Professor, University of Tennessee:

One unintended consequence of federal education policies (ESEA/NCLB, EHA/IDEA) is that most local education agencies seem to presume that any and all funding for interventions for struggling learners should be full funded by the USDE. Do you see any way to undo this presumption? I’ve never quite understood why LEAs do not have a substantial local budget contribution to fund the sorts of intervention designs that research shows consistently to close the achievement gaps. The way I see it the locals are correct that NCLB does not provide sufficient funding to deliver the sorts on interventions research supports but why should the feds pay for all of it?

Chester E. Finn Jr.:

As best I can tell, NCLB carries plenty of money to pay for the things which are actually mandated by it, such as universal testing. Few people seem to understand that NCLB does not “require” that more children become proficient, only that states set standards, administer tests, report results, and at least go thru the motions of “intervening” in low performing schools and districts. Core school funding continues to come from state/local sources. It should pay for effective schools, not ineffective ones!

Question from Elizabeth E. O’Hanlon, M.Ed, Doctoral Fellow, Special Education, Howard Community College:

How has NCLB helped and or hindered Special Education students? Comment on both students who are diploma bound and students who are not.

Frederick M. Hess:

It’s obviously focused new attention on ensuring that attention is being paid to the academic preparation of Special Education populations, and there’s certainly some evident in the most recent NAEP that these efforts are translating into visible results. On the other hand, state proficiency targets are almost inevitably unreasonable for some unspecified segment of the Special Needs population, resulting in perverse incentives to triage students.

Question from Donna Craft, School Improvement Specialist, Whiteriver Unified School District:

When NCLB is reauthorized, will it move away from its “one size fits all” theme and acknowledge that students and learning don’t always fit a generalized mold?

Chester E. Finn Jr.:

It’s important to strike a balance here. It’s not unreasonable for society to want ALL of its children (at least all who are capable of this) to acquire many of the same skills and body of knowledge. Which doesn’t mean they all can or should be taught those things the same way--or that the “common” part is the entirety of a child’s education. Today’s version of NCLB runs some risk of squeezing out the rest.

Question from David Crawmer, Pres., Dutchman Atlantic Corp.:

Don’t you think that every education reform activist knows what remedies will work? The problem is that activists have no control. The people who have control, the unions and the politicians they are ideologically aligned with, are under intense pressure to maintain the status quo. Isn’t the problem for reformers today simply that the primary components of NCLB, Reading First and parental choice, were resisted until the status quo forces gained control of Congress?

Chester E. Finn Jr.:

You make an interesting point about power and control. My issue with your quest is that the “education reform activists” don’t necessarily agree with each other about remedies. In fact they mostly don’t.

Question from Missy Taylor, Vice President, Kansas Families for Education:

Re Remedy 7 [Provide Competent Help], could you be more specific about the qualifications of those who would provide “competent” help to underperforming school systems?

Chester E. Finn Jr.:

We’re asking for some inventiveness here, and trying some different models. One model might be a “consulting firm” (e.g. McKinsey, Bridgespan). Another might be business/corporate “turnaround” experts. Another might be the “school doctors” that states like Kentucky and Virginia have been deploying. The point is quite simply that many LEAs (and SEAs) don’t contain internally all the expertise they need to turn around low performing schools and likely they never will. Time to call in the air force.

Question from John, principal:

Why is it obvious to just about everyone EXCEPT the people that make policy that national standards are needed? This is SUCH a no-brainer, it boggles my mind.

Chester E. Finn Jr.:

Hear, hear. But you must also remember that a form of national academic standards were tried (by the Bush 41 administration) in the early 90’s and a form of national testing was proposed (by Clinton)around 1997. Both, unfortunately, crashed and burned, leaving a lot of people, especially on Capitol Hill, quite allergic to this idea.

Question from Sheila Smith, science specialist, Jackson Public Schools:

Has NCLB left science behind? We are losing a whole generation of future scientists because K-12 schools are focusing on reading and math. Will we have new drugs to combat new diseases? Will we have new weapons to protect us? Will we keep up with the technological advances? The answer is “No” because we are not teaching science in the schools. NAEP proved this too.

Frederick M. Hess:

As Andy Rotherham and I argued in a Phi Delta Kappan piece earlier this year, there are inevitable tensions between efforts to focus on boosting the performance of low-achieving students in reading and math and efforts to focus on challenging instruction in science, math, engineering, and technology. One can spin narratives as to why the efforts are compatible (i.e. more proficient students means more students who are prepared to take STEM courses), but the reality of constrained budgets and a limited pool of highly effective teachers means that difficult choices will always have to be made. And I think the evidence suggests that the focus on achievement gaps in math and reading, while indisputably valuable in some ways, have also distracted us from addressing the challenges to which you allude.

Question from Andrew Dowling, Ed.D Professor, Coastal Georgia Comm. College:

Obviously allowing states to design and report assessments is not working. What are the chances of a national test being included in the reauthorization of NCLB?

Chester E. Finn Jr.:

Excellent question but one with no answer other than pure speculation or prognostication. The chance today is not good. But after the ’08 election, particularly if the Broad/Gates “ED in ‘08" campaign gets traction, the picture might be different. Hope so.

Question from Kathy Brown, Parent, Houston County Georgia:

NCLB’s key policies and funding targets poor, disadvantaged, and minority students who are least likely to receive additional educational opportunities outside the school. However, what does NCLB do for parents in non-Title I schools who want to be a real partner in their child’s academic process, but are shunned because the school system has all of the control and power?

Chester E. Finn Jr.:

There is no getting around the fact that NCLB is the lineal descendant of ESEA which focuses on “Title I” schools and Title-I eligible kids, namely disadvantaged kids. That has been the federal goverment’s priority for more than 4 decades and isn’t going to change. And I’m not sure it should. But nothing doesn’t preclude others from doing right by non-Title I schools and kids.

Question from Margaret Statham, acting Education Specialist, T’iis Nazbas Community School:

Although teachers tend to hate NCLB, what other practical suggestions do have for accountability in the classroom, given the fact that Goals 2000 did nothing for accountability, as well as Improving America’s Education Act, before that? What accountability do you have for students, parents, and administrators? (It isn’t just about money or degrees.)

Frederick M. Hess:

I don’t think it’s surprising that many teachers are resistant to NCLB. The imposition of almost any accountability system, whether in the civil service, a private firm, or anywhere else, inevitably yields complaints. Some of these have merits-- especially those which point out “Office Space” style inanity-- and some simply reflect the fact that we all resent someone else announcing that we will henceforth be judged by standards that we haven’t helped craft. That said, I think there are obvious problems with NCLB-style accountability (i.e. end of year proficency levels don’t necessarily reflect how much value that school has added, mesures of proficiency vary wildly from one state to another, school and teacher performance is conceived in very narrow terms, and so forth). Devising an accountability system which is more attuned to measuring how well a teacher’s students fare during that school year, how their efforts are regarded by their colleagues and superiors (and potentially students and/or students’ parents), and what other roles they play in the school environment would be more defensible.

Question from Kathy Patterson, Federal Program Director, Pre-K Now:

If we’re basing federally-funded interventions on research, shouldn’t we build in a provision in NCLB to dedicate resources for school systems to initiate and/or improve pre-k programs as part of their reform strategies?

Frederick M. Hess:

I’m not sure whether it necessarily belongs in NCLB per se, and certainly would not want to see it added as one more federal mandate, but I think it might be sensible option as to how states might use some of the law’s discretionary money. If one were to consider new dollars, I would certainly think a competitive program that funded districts to pursue voluntary pilor reform efforts (and that mandated and included funds for rigorous research and evaluation) would be preferable to new across-the-board federal expenditures linked to new mandates governing teacher credentials or other input metrics.

Question from Jim Ryan, Law Professor, University of Virginia:

Do you think there’s any chance that the school choice provisions will be modified to give students the right to attend schools outside of their home districts?

Chester E. Finn Jr.:

Boy I hope so. Widening the range of choices--one of our recommendations in the book--is crucial if the choice elements of NCLB are to gain any traction. But I fear that Congress lacks the guts. The good news is that a number of states have, on their own, adopted something like “open enrollment” policies under which a child can attend any public (or charter) school. [Unfortunately, transportation isn’t always furnished.]Every state should do this, the heck with Congress.

Question from Dr. Nancy Boyles, Professor of Reading, Southern Connecticut State University:

How much of the success of NCLB do you feel is a function of state policy rather than federal policy?

Chester E. Finn Jr.:

It’s a hybrid, of course, federal mandates and goals and money layered on top of a state-run system. A lot of compromises and accommodations mean that this hybrid will never be tidy or efficient. States remain in the driver’s seat on nearly all of the most important education decisions having to do with curriculum, teachers, resource allocation and more. The federal government, via NCLB and other programs, is basically trying to “incentivize” states to do some things differently than, left to their own devices, they would necessarily do.

Question from Liv Finne, Education Policy Analyst, Washington Policy Center:

Despite serious shortcomings and deficiencies in the development of our standards and tests here in Washington State, and in ever growing numbers of students being “left behind,” the public seems to yawn with indifference, hoping against hope that their own children will manage to enter and graduate from college, despite very poor preparation for college. In your opinion, which one measure best communicates to parents that the education of their children is of a poorer quality than the education they received in public school years ago, in the fifties and sixties?

Frederick M. Hess:

I’m not sure that today’s schools are worse than those of the fifties. After all, remember both that we expected many fewer students to complete high school or matriculate to college a half-century ago. I think it more useful to suggest that performance has remained relatively flat-- which is itself an enormous problem given that real expenditures have soared and that our expectations have as well. As far as which single measure best gauges performance, my take is that every indicator has its strengths and its limitations-- whether that is high school graduation rate, PISA or TIMMS comparisons, NAEP or anything else.

Question from Patricia Custis, Executive Director, PA House of Representatives:

Have any advancements been made on utilizing more flexible growth models, especially for subgroups? If so, what are they.

Chester E. Finn Jr.:

As you know, ED is currently pilot “growth models” with a handful of states, even though they’re not explicitly provided for by current NCLB. The new Fordham report, however, raises a big concern about the viability of such models, as we see how many states have non-compatible expectations from one grade to the next. What does it mean to compare, say, “the end of fifth grade with the end of fourth grade” if the expectations for those two grades, as revealed by state “cut scores”, are so discrepant?

Question from Dick Schutz, 3RsPlus:

How can you justify treating a cut score on a scale, with the cut score changing from grade-to-grade as “reading proficiency”? Isn’t this a far cry from what parents and the public mean by the term “proficiency”? Cut scores are currently set differently in different states, but won’t a “national test” embody the same fundamental discrepancy?

Frederick M. Hess:

Any cut score is inevitably a judgment call. Despite all the expertise that psychometricians can muster, the decision of what students need to know and when they need to know it is ultimately a normative decision. However, there are ways to be more thoughtful, disciplined, and consistent about reaching these determinations. I think that forging coherent expectations about standards and targeted achievement levels would help parents, educators, and policymakers more usefully discuss how well our students are doing and how to address our shortcomings.

Question from Nell Pederson, Staff, Arizona Education Association:

What changes do you see to the Highly Qualified section of No Child Left Behind? Currently this section of NCLB causes school districts difficulty, particularly at the middle level?

Frederick M. Hess:

I’m not a big fan of the HQT provision. I am on record, most visibly in “Tear Down This Wall” (a 2001 white paper issued by the Progressive Policy Institute) as arguing that it is enormously difficult to gauge teacher quality on the basis of preparation or certification characteristics and therefore that we ought be as flexible as possible about permitting potential educators to apply for teaching jobs. I argued that in teaching, like in business management or journalism, and unlike medicine or engineering, that there’s enormous disagreement about what preparation is essential or about the utility of that preparation. Consequently, I think HQT’s efforts to create federal requirements that states require certification for new teachers-- and ultimately (through the HOUSSE provision) impose bureaucratic paper requirements for veteran teachers, have been generally unhelpful.

Question from Joyce Koballa, reporter, the Herald-Standard, Uniontown, PA:

Currently, NCLB states that all children should be reading at or above grade level by the end of third grade. What is being suggested though for the children that don’t have severe learning disabilities known as the “gap kids” that aren’t meeting that requirement and need to catch up?

Frederick M. Hess:

I think districts are trying a variety of efforts to suppport those children. Little is being specifically proposed in Congress, beyond the law’s existng remedies (public choice, SES, restructuring). But districts are engaged in a variety of efforts, including intensive instruction, use of multimedia literacy programs, tutoring, use of new programs, and so forth.

Question from Lisa Smith, teacher, Missouri:

Two major elements are missing from your list of solutions: how do we hold students and parents responsible for making sure students attend school and give their best effort? Without these, schools are doomed to failure.

Frederick M. Hess:

You raise an excellent point. As you know, Checker and I are primarily focused on trying to improve the law’s remedy provisions-- so we tried to steer clear of the more macro recommendations. But I think you make the obvious point that current accountability efforts have devoted little attention to student accountability, parental responsiblity, or how to encourage these. The reasons for this lapse are pretty obvious, but you are entirely correct that this issue demands far more attention.

Question from Dr. Olatunji, Sr. Research Scientist, George Washington University:

In your opinion(s) what are NCLB’s greatest “virtues?” That is, what have been the most beneficial effects of the legislation that we not only should recognize but also preserve as policy?

Frederick M. Hess:

I think far and away it is the brilliant illumination of student achievement. What NCLB has done most effectively is provide a deep, probing X-ray of the performance of our nation’s students. Across the nation, it has forced states to collect data, to publicly report on the performance of various groups of students, and has created a transparency that previously did not exist. This, in turn, has permitted new efforts to research how resources are being used, new opportunities to reserach interventions, and discussions about the quality and rigor of relevant standards.

Question from Joanne, Superintendent:

I just wanted to let you know that I think you and mike have the best ed policy podcast out there. I might not always agree with you, but you guys ROCK that podcast! great job.

Frederick M. Hess:

And for that we thank you. We’re hugely appreciative to all of our listeners out there.

Question from Robert Irvine Teacher:

From the classroom, it appears that private consultants, armed with “research-based evidence” have taken over K-12 teaching strategies throughout the nation. Some of these “experts’ have little or no classroom teaching experience. How and when did the private consulting companies take over the area of K-12 performance and improvement?

Frederick M. Hess:

I don’t know that I’d frame it quite that way. I think that there’s long been an industry of professional development and consulting outfits that contracted with schools and districts. I think it’s indisputably true that the awareness of performance issues and the pressure to address them may have encouraged more districts to reach out to more of these in recent years (though I’m not personally familiar with any data on tis issue). More broadly, it’s true that some of these consultants add value and some don’t, and the reality is that there’s little public transparency on how contracts are awarded, how much is spent, or what benefits accrue. Personally, dating back to my time in the classroom, I’m as skeptical of some of the classroom-experienced consultants as of the outsiders-- and think that many of the outsiders have the ability to import thinking, analytic approaches, metrics, and expertise that have long been lacking in K-12. That said, I think you’re right to note that private consulting firms can also be an easy way for superintendents to appear proactive and that it’s not always clear how fully they are attuned to the real challenges of teaching, learning, schooling, or public management.

Question from Paul T. Henley, Ph. D.; Teaching and Learning Specialist; Texas State Teachers Association:

How close do you think the House Education and Labor Committee’s final offering resemble the current draft? That is, do you think they listened to any of us?

Frederick M. Hess:

I think it’s up in the air as to whether the final bill will resemble this draft. In large part, it depends on the timing-- on whether NCLB is reauthorized by this Congress or not. Right now, I’d say the betting is that the reauthorization will wind up being pushed into 2009. Whether this bill would serve as the blueprint for that reauthorization effort will depend on the new administration, whether Miller is still chair in the House, and how various concerns and recommendations are articulated in the course of the current debate.

Janelle Callahan (Moderator):

Unfortunately our time is up. Thanks for all of the great questions, and thanks to Frederick M. Hess and Chester E. Finn Jr. for joining us today. You’ll be able to read a transcript of this chat soon. It will be posted on

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