Special Report
Federal Commentary

Stimulating a Race to the Top

By Chester E. Finn Jr. & Michael J. Petrilli — March 09, 2009 3 min read

Public education stands to receive some $100 billion from the enormous economic-stimulus package enacted last month by Congress, about one-eighth of the total. In pushing for including schools in the bill, President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan argued that, besides preventing the loss of 600,000 teacher jobs, these funds could spur needed changes in our education system.

High on their wish list is raising state academic standards, which are—literally—all over the map. “Fifty different goal posts is absolutely ridiculous,” Secretary Duncan recently told an education gathering. “If we accomplish one thing in the coming years, it should be to eliminate the extreme variation in standards across America.”

But what a tough chew he is biting off, tougher even than Duncan may know. A new study by analysts at the Northwest Evaluation Association, published by our institute, finds so much state-to-state variation as to turn the promise of results-based accountability into an illusion.

The researchers took a diverse collection of real schools and asked how many would make the grade under the No Child Left Behind Act’s school accountability provisions in each of 28 states. The results are staggering. In some places (Massachusetts, for example), almost none of these elementary schools would “make adequate yearly progress” under the federal law, and hence would be judged “in need of improvement.” But in other states (such as Wisconsin and Arizona), almost every one of these same schools would be deemed just fine. These are the same exact schools, mind you. Same students. Same teachers. Same achievement. What’s different—sometimes drastically different—are the arcane and obscure accountability rules that vary from state to state.

Take “Clarkson Elementary” (a pseudonym), the lowest-performing school in our sample. Every state but Wisconsin considers it to be failing, and for good reason, as its students are reading and doing math well below grade level, and, each school year, fall even further behind their peers.

Why does the Badger State think this school is satisfactory? Not because its residents have a principled difference with the rest of the country about school effectiveness. No, it’s because officials in Madison have gamed NCLB’s accountability provisions in almost every way possible, by setting low passing scores on their tests, adopting rules that exempt many schools from accountability for minority students and other “subgroups,” and using statistical gyrations that have the effect of lowering standards even further. Yet the U.S. Department of Education—before Duncan’s time—blessed every part of this.

Congress, however, is mainly responsible. As adopted in 2001, the No Child Left Behind law creates an impossible dilemma for states. It admonishes them to bring all their students to “proficiency” in reading and math by 2014, including youngsters with disabilities and recent immigrants. Some states have said OK, we’ll do our honest best to hold all our pupils and schools to high standards. In those jurisdictions today, enormous numbers of schools are said to be failing. But other states have fiddled with their accountability systems so as to be able to tell schools like Clarkson that they’re doing fine.

Secretary Duncan obviously wants to solve this problem, and Congress gave him a powerful tool when it included a $5 billion “race-to-the-top incentive fund” in the stimulus bill. ("$5 Billion Pot of Money Draws Plenty of Interest, Raises Some Eyebrows,” Feb. 25, 2009.) This allows Duncan to offer cash to states that agree to raise their standards to internationally competitive levels. But even big-ticket bribes aren’t likely to do the trick if these same states still face perverse incentives under No Child Left Behind.

Which means that, sooner or later, he and the president must address the fundamental problems with NCLB. Overhauling this law will be tough, controversial work, though, and the Obama team might be tempted to put it off as long as possible. But if Duncan and his boss are serious about giving the United States a real, 21st-century school accountability system that works—and a lasting economic stimulus—they are going to have to plunge in soon.

A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Stimulating a Race To the Top

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