Opinion
Federal Commentary

Too Many Remedies?

By Rick Hess — September 25, 2007 6 min read

In Washington, the U.S. House education committee kicked off the school year by issuing a No Child Left Behind Act reauthorization draft notable for proposals to measure students’ academic growth, add indicators beyond reading and mathematics, and differentiate between schools that miss making “adequate yearly progress” by a lot and those that fail in just one or two subgroups. While the draft proposal also offers some relatively elaborate thinking on the “muscle” behind the law’s ambitious accountability framework—its remedies for failing schools—little public attention or interest has been devoted to thinking about the challenges posed by these remedy provisions. It is crucial that we reflect on the lessons that experience has taught us and how they should inform our decisions during the reauthorization.

It is possible that No Child Left Behind is a “Wizard of Oz” phenomenon, more powerful in shadow than in substance.

No Child Left Behind’s novel “cascade” of remedies takes effect when federally aided schools fail to “make AYP.” If a school fails to make AYP for two consecutive years, students are offered “public school choice” during the following school year. If the school continues to fail, it is subjected to a sequence of additional remedies, including student eligibility for “supplemental educational services” after three years; “corrective action,” such as implementing a new curriculum or appointing an outside consultant, after four; and the development of a “restructuring plan” after five. The district must implement the restructuring plan after a sixth consecutive failure to make AYP. These provisions were to be the law’s teeth, ensuring that persistently low-performing schools improved and that students stuck in those schools had a way out.

We recently collaborated with the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a national team of scholars to examine, five years in, how the remedy provisions are working in states, districts, and schools. The findings, newly available in the volume No Remedy Left Behind, suggest that substantial rethinking is required.

What have we learned about how the remedies are working?

First, with the gift of hindsight, it is clear that the noble but determinedly unrealistic aspirations of the federal law—that every child will be proficient in reading and math by 2014—detracted from meaningful educational accountability and school improvement. Almost everywhere, we see NCLB compliance, but often in the form of formulaic activity. The inevitability of “failure” in many schools, and the sentiment that improved instruction may have but limited impact on a school’s AYP rating, has led educators, states, and local officials to focus—sometimes cynically and sometimes in good faith—on following NCLB’s procedures to keep the money flowing, rather than on driving innovative improvement.

Second, the No Child Left Behind law’s most aggressive remedies—those that seek to alter the culture of low-performing schools fundamentally by requiring them to restructure—are rarely applied and, when applied, are typically deployed only in their mildest form. Tellingly, even the relatively tame and popular (albeit bizarrely designed) supplemental educational services draw a laughably low participation rate in most places. The SES program is caught up in complex cross pressures: Districts do not like losing money to outside providers, but they are largely mollified by the ability to regulate the terms and conditions under which those providers operate. Meanwhile, parents rely on schools for guidance, yet schools have little incentive to provide useful information or steer parents toward outsiders.

Third, these challenges with remedy implementation raise the question of whether the federal education reform architecture, first erected in 1965 and reliant on state education agencies and local school districts for implementation, is suited to a reform regimen intended to alter the behavior of those agencies. Remedying troubled schools requires districts or states to drop the hammer, yet few have shown any such inclination. The No Child Left Behind law has not changed that. Moreover, in states with pre-existing standards and accountability systems, NCLB’s prescriptiveness has sometimes impeded state efforts and confused the public by introducing conflicting tests and measurements.

Fourth, and more positively, the federal law has increased sunlight and generated a wealth of public data on school performance. This transparency has provided parents, educators, and state and local officials with new tools, and has created political cover for superintendents who have sought to upend staid routines. In states like Michigan, NCLB’s looming presence has served as the impetus—and the useful scapegoat—for valuable but unpopular measures. But it is possible that No Child Left Behind is a “Wizard of Oz” phenomenon, more powerful in shadow than in substance and likely to lose credibility as it becomes apparent that federal and state “wizards” lack the solutions to fix—or the will to sanction—low performers.

Experience suggests that it is time to overhaul the remedy cascade.

First, federal policymakers ought to be pragmatic in reshaping the law to suit the strengths and limitations of the federal government. Washington should steer clear of managing finely calibrated sanctions and narrow its involvement to insisting that states identify underperforming schools, provide support for improvement, and take firm measures with persistently failing schools. States are best suited to identify low-performing schools and help clear the barriers constraining local change agents.

Like the statute’s requirements on testing, AYP, and teacher quality, the remedy provisions are a quilt of good and bad ideas stitched together in a series of awkward compromises.

In the initial years of remedies, the law should be flexible, focusing on providing support to empower states and school leaders. Instead of prescribing a detailed seven-year sequence, the law should allow an initial four- or five-year blanket phase during which states and districts can tailor and direct school improvement. If, after this flexible phase, a school shows insufficient improvement, it must be closed. This sequence—presumption of competence, followed by swift and sure sanction—can provide the clear theory of action sorely lacking today.

Second, parents need faster, clearer, and better choices. States must radically alter their testing and data processes so that school identification status is measured—and publicly reported—more quickly, enabling parents to make choices in a timely fashion. Washington can help enable choice by requiring districts to offer feasible options, including virtual schooling and more-lenient charter school ceilings, when traditional ones are unavailable. If state statute restricts alternative choices for children in failing schools, Washington should withhold federal dollars.

Third, we are aware of no sector where dozens of organizations have the capability or organizational machinery to “turn around” troubled operations. It is impractical for the federal government to expect hundreds of school districts to manage this task. In other sectors, these capabilities are concentrated in a handful of “turnaround specialists” and niche consultants. If school restructuring is going to happen at scale, the education sector must develop effective operators that can contract with multiple districts to provide the knowledge, oversight, and personnel to drive restructuring.

Finally, in reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, Congress should push states and districts to link consequences for failure and incentives for success to individuals. The law’s remedies and sanctions rarely prompt a real sense of urgency, as failure to comply or raise achievement has minimal bearing on the job security of superintendents, principals, or teachers.

Like the statute’s requirements on testing, AYP, and teacher quality, the remedy provisions are a quilt of good and bad ideas stitched together in a series of awkward compromises. It is no great surprise that the results have disappointed. Looking forward, Rep. George Miller and his colleagues on the House education committee should resolve that Uncle Sam concentrate on what he can do capably: use the “bully pulpit” to change the political climate; set clear and pragmatic expectations; support data collection, technical expertise, and research; and encourage pioneering state efforts. This would chart a path toward a more modest but more meaningful law.

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