Assessment Opinion

The Federal Role in State Education Accountability Systems

By Marc Tucker — April 28, 2014 5 min read
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Prior to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), 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 delegation of the making of education policy to the states in the United States Constitution.

NCLB paid no attention to the unwritten agreements that had restrained the federal role in education prior to its passage. That abrupt departure from more than two centuries of practice had its origins in Congressional frustration. Over the preceding twenty years or more, the Congress had substantially increased its expenditures on behalf of low-income and minority school children, but the results of those increases had been very disappointing. NCLB was an announcement that henceforth the Congress expected value for its money; it was going to hold the faculty of the public schools that received federal education funds accountable for doing whatever it took to improve the achievement of disadvantaged children. If their achievement did not improve, the Congress would demand that educators pay the price. The Congress would no longer assume, as it had in the past, that if it voted to allocate the money, the educators would use it well and wisely.

NCLB was a genuinely bipartisan piece of legislation because legislators on both sides of the aisle were equally frustrated. The legislation did not represent a bipartisan agreement to change the longstanding agreement about limiting the federal role in education. That point was never really debated when the legislation was passed.

But the central feature of NCLB was a federally designed—and very new—accountability system for the states that reached all the way into the heart of the states’ right to determine for themselves how to organize and manage public elementary and secondary education in their state. Once the Congress required schools and districts to show that their disadvantaged students were making “adequate yearly progress” or face serious consequences—including loss of their jobs, the die was cast.

It seems to me that there are two interests that need to be balanced here. One is the federal government’s interest in making sure that the money it gives to schools produces results for the disadvantaged students it is intended to benefit. The other is the state’s interest in retaining their constitutional right to develop and implement their own policies in the arena of public elementary and secondary education.

Here’s how I would balance the scale. I’ll begin by predicating that the United States has a national interest in developing an education system that enables our country to be competitive with the most advanced industrial countries in the world. And I will further predicate that we cannot be fully competitive unless we have an education system that is among the top ten in the world, as measured by the most highly regarded comparative measures of international education system performance. And, finally, I will predicate that the most appropriate of these measures is the PISA assessments, which measure not how well students do on mastering a curriculum, but how well they use what they have learned to solve real-world problems.

What I am really saying here is that we can no longer say that the failure of any state to educate its students well is a problem only for that state. It is a problem for the United States, for all the states. The states have grown far too interdependent and personal mobility is far too great to pretend that what one state does about education does not matter to the people of the United States. If a state or region fails to educate its people well, there will be great costs to other states, in lost productivity and competitiveness and increased transfer payment costs. We are in that sense among others, one country. But there are many ways to successfully run a state education system. The idea of the states constituting a laboratory of democracy was a good one.

Some in Congress say that the solution to the current dilemma is simply to return to the old formula in which the federal government provided aid, but the states retain all the control they used to have. That ignores the rationale that led to NCLB. When all the states did their thing, the results were highly varied. When NCLB was implemented, many states set their standards in the basement. That must not happen again.

This is what I would do. Let the Congress decide what level of student performance relative to the performance of the top-performing nations is acceptable for the United States. For me, the only acceptable target for the United States is to be among the top ten performers in the world. One would hope that the Congress would not want to settle for American performance that is not among the top ten.

Then stipulate in law that all states will participate in the PISA sample assessments, allowing states to compare their performance to the top nations, provinces and states in the world. Further, let the law stipulate that any state with average student performance equal to that of the top ten nations or even within ten percentage points of the average performance of the top ten could organize and manage its education system in any way it wished. That would include having its own standards, devising its own accountability system and creating its own testing regime.

But, if a state were to fall below that standard, the federal government would require that state, as a condition of receiving any federal school aid, to adopt such rules as the federal government, in federal legislation, required it to adopt, with respect to such things as student performance standards, assessments and accountability. This would not mean that the federal government would necessarily specify what student performance standard would have to be used or which tests or what the accountability system would be, but rather that, as in NCLB and the Race to the Top legislation, the federal government would be in a position to require that certain minimum features would have to be in place as a condition of receiving federal funds until such time as the state rose back up into the ranks of the top performers and once again earned the right to be a free agent in such matters. The federal government would, in any case, reserve the right to intervene in education policy in cases involving the infringement of civil rights.

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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.