Accountability Opinion

ESEA Reauthorization: A Broken NCLB and Its Unintended Consequences

By Marc Tucker — January 29, 2015 4 min read
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Prior to No Child Left Behind, the federal government had conceived of its role as providing aid to the states for a variety of purposes and enforcing civil rights law in the schools. There was broad agreement that these roles did not infringe on the U.S. Constitution’s delegation of the making of education policy to the states.

The lion’s share of the aid provided was intended to compensate for the disadvantages faced by poor and minority students. At first, the Congress assumed that, if the aid were provided, the professionals would know how best to use that money to meet the needs of the students for whom it was intended. In 2001, with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, that assumption was, as they say, no longer operative. By that time, more than twice as much money was being spent on each student, after accounting for inflation, as had been spent when NCLB’s direct ancestor, the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965, had been enacted and, though some progress had been made on student achievement, it was hardly commensurate with the size of the additional investment.

Congress’ frustration was decidedly bipartisan. The result was a bipartisan demand that schools be held accountable for the money Congress was spending. Because the money from the federal government was specifically intended for poor and minority children, the legislation specified that achievement scores for those children be reported separately, so that average scores would not conceal poor results in these subgroups. For the first time in the history of American education, schools could be taken over or shut down if the students did not meet certain performance standards, particularly poor and minority students. But the legislation was not written to affect only the disadvantaged students and those schools serving mostly disadvantaged students. Quite the contrary. It specified an accountability systems designed to affect every public school in the United States. It went way beyond providing assistance to vulnerable children to put the Congress in the role of making core education policy for American education writ large. It was at this point that, for all practical purposes, the Congress became a kind of national school board for the United States.

That is because a Congress that felt it was not getting value for its investment was angry. It is not because we had a considered national discussion of the federal role in education. There was no such discussion. The mood did not change when the Obama administration came into office. The new administration shifted accountability from the schools to the teachers, based on data from standardized tests of student achievement. This Democratic administration was no less tough in its intention to force change on American schools and to hold education professionals accountable than the Republican administration that preceded it.

But it did not work. While there is evidence of modest improvement in our elementary and middle schools during the period since the passage of No Child Left Behind, the rate of improvement, for the student body as a whole and for disadvantaged students in particular, was greater in the period before No Child Left behind became law than afterwards, the exact opposite of what one would expect if No Left Behind had had a positive effect on student performance. Furthermore, what improvement there was occurred exclusively at the elementary and middle school levels. Not only was the rate of improvement slower after No Child Left Behind became the law of the land, but there was no improvement at all for high school students after the passage of No Child Left behind. I submit that the record of achievement for tough accountability regimes of the kind introduced in No Child Left Behind and the strategies offered by the Obama administration in Race to the Top and its waiver program has been dismal.

There is, however, plenty of evidence that the curriculum has been radically narrowed in many schools, especially those serving poor and minority students. There is evidence that the best and worst performing students are getting less attention from their teachers than they used to. There is evidence that the cheap, low-quality tests the schools were forced to use emphasize very low skills at the expense of the kinds of skills that will be needed to avoid a life of poverty. Further, the results of this effect are far worse for disadvantaged students than others because the teachers in schools with large proportions of disadvantaged students have suffered disproportionately from relentless drill and practice on low-level skills and reduced attention to higher-level skills. There is abundant evidence that the value-added methods being used to estimate a teacher’s contribution to the learning of his or her students are deeply flawed and unfairly applied, leading to profound alienation of the teaching force and the exit of many capable teachers. There is widespread evidence that the heavy accountability attached to the use of the standardized tests has produced an orgy of testing in the schools that is detested by teachers and parents alike. No Child Left Behind and its unlegislated amendments by the Obama administration have become a poster child for “unintended consequences.”

The question is what to do. In my next blog, I will propose a new architecture for the next edition of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would reset the balance between the federal role in education and the state role, and would at the same time produce much better outcomes both for disadvantaged students and all of our other students. It would have plenty of accountability, without the unintended consequences.

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.