Special Report
Federal Opinion

Stimulating a Race to the Top

By Chester E. Finn Jr. & Michael J. Petrilli — March 09, 2009 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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

Events

English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
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
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

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

Federal Top Federal Adviser on Puerto Rico's Schools Declares: 'We Have to Build Trust'
Chris Soto heads an Education Department team providing technical assistance and support for the U.S. territory's public schools.
4 min read
Martin G. Brumbaugh School kindergarten teacher Nydsy Santiago teaches her students under a gazebo at a municipal athletic park in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 4, 2021.
Martin G. Brumbaugh School kindergarten teacher Nydsy Santiago teaches her students under a gazebo at a municipal athletic park in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 4, 2021.
Carlos Giusti/AP
Federal Schools Could Count Nonbinary Students Under Biden Proposal
The Civil Rights Data Collection for this school year could also revive questions about inexperienced teachers and preschool discipline.
6 min read
Image of a form with male and female checkboxes.
iStock/Getty
Federal 'Parents' Bill of Rights' Underscores Furor Over Curriculum and Transparency in Schools
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley's bill highlights how education issues like critical race theory will likely stay in the national political spotlight.
7 min read
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., says "it's time to give control back to parents, not woke bureaucrats."
Patrick Semansky/AP
Federal Opinion It’s Not Just the NSBA That’s Out of Touch. There’s a Bigger Problem
Those who influence educational policy or practice would do well to care about what parents and the public actually want.
4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty