Study: Of NCLB Sanctions, Restructuring Spurred Most Improvement

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 22, 2013 3 min read
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Low-performing schools face a long accountability road under the No Child Left Behind Act, under which continuous poor student achievement over six years calls up increasingly severe educational sanctions over a six. A new analysis of the law’s effects in North Carolina suggests that while the threat of sanctions generally can goose test scores, substantial school improvement came only from the law’s biggest stick—wholesale restructuring.

The analysis, “Were All Those Standardized Tests for Nothing? The Lessons of No Child Left Behind,” is being discussed at a symposium by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington later this afternoon. (Education Week‘s President and Editor-in-Chief Virginia Edwards is monitoring one of the panels.)

AEI researchers Thomas Ahn and Jacob Vigdor studied North Carolina elementary and secondary schools just above and below the performance cutoff for sanctions at each level of NCLB accountability. The basic structure—not counting the almost-endless permutations created by years of federal pilot programs and state accountability waivers—goes like this: The first year a school misses student achievement benchmarks, it is put on a watch list. After two years, it must offer “school choice,” the option to transfer students to higher-performing schools. At year three of missing targets in the same subject, the school must provide free tutoring to students qualifying for free- or reduced-price lunch. After four years of low achievement, the school must start “corrective action,” including changes in leadership, teachers, curriculum, instructional time, etc. If all else fails and students continue to miss test-score targets for five years or more, the school must create and implement a restructuring plan, such as converting to a charter or firing the principal and most staff.

Improvement at the Beginning and the End

The researchers found schools operating under sanctions showed a small but statistically significantly faster growth in students’ math performance than schools that barely avoided sanctions. It would be just enough to mean an average student at the 50th percentile in a school that avoided sanctions would improve to nearly the 51st percentile at a school under NCLB sanctions. And the lowest-performing schools made the biggest growth.

However, the effect of early sanctions seemed to concentrate in the very first year, the authors found: “The shock of failing for the first time is enough to induce marginal schools to exert themselves to achieve better results in the next year,” they write.

By contrast, the sanctions that followed over several years—transfers, tutoring, curriculum and staffing changes, and even making a restructuring plan— had no significant effect on student achievement. The threat of sanctions might have shocked schools into higher performance, but the sanctions themselves didn’t do much—until the school had to restructure.

Overhauling the school did boost math achievement significantly, the authors found, with the improvement equal to moving a student at the 50th percentile up to the 52nd percentile.

These findings make sense in the context of other studies of those individual sanctions. For example, school choice and tutoring have a history of low participation in comparison to the students eligible for them, and they address students but not the school as a whole.

The authors recommended several ways to develop a better “accountability 2.0" if and when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act ever gets reauthorized. Some of them seem in line with opinions of younger teachers:

• Base test-score accountability on academic growth, not proficiency levels.
• Use school-based value-added rewards, not rewards for individual teachers, to increase incentives for cooperation and account for the performance of early-grade teachers.
• Develop effective ways to give feedback and interventions for low-performing teachers, rather than just firing them.
• Give states and districts more power to develop local rewards and sanctions for low-performing schools.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.