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Friday, September 07, 2007

Must read NCLB article from AEI

The American Enterprise Institute has an interesting perspective on improving No Child Left Behind. Resisting the temptation to diss it outright, the article dissects the reasonable roles of federal government and how the current structure sets up incongruous models.

The authors jump right into the issue with a comment heard in the hallways of many of today's schools—namely is 100 percent achievement a realistic goal?
Noble, yes, but also naive, misleading, and in some respects dysfunctional. While nobody doubts that the number of "proficient" students in America can and should increase dramatically from today's woeful level, no educator believes that universal proficiency in 2014 is attainable. Only politicians promise such things. (Bold is mine)
It's practically un-American to shoot for anything less than the top and certainly political rhetoric doesn't tolerate anything less. But what does setting such an unrealistic expectation do to the overall intentions of the bill? The answer is that it creates a system that turns the very good goal of improving student achievement into dysfunctional compliance without regard for what real student achievement looks like.

Authors Frederick M. Hess and Chester Finn describe NCLB as a "civil rights manifesto masquerading as an education accountability system."
NCLB's architects thought they were devising an elaborate plan to alter the behavior of thousands of schools and millions of educators, drawing on a mix of goals, rewards, sanctions, choices, and sunlight. They overlooked the fact that effective behavior-changing regimens are rooted in realistic expectations and joined to palpable incentives and punishments; NCLB provides none of these.
The authors go on to detail why NCLB, as it is currently structured, is not working as intended.
Embedded within NCLB's accountability system are three distinct, discernible models of educational change that have been awkwardly welded together.

Each of these approaches is plausible on its own terms. And each has a place in federal policy. But they cannot reasonably be linked to one another, as NCLB tries to do. They entail discrepant views of the federal role in education and employ discordant mechanisms. The result isn't working.

For example:

  • The value of an "X-ray" of the nation's school performance has long been recognized. NCLB's dictate that all states regularly test students in key subjects marked a historic success. The accuracy of the picture is compromised, however, when this cross-sectional look at student achievement becomes the basis for gauging the performance of schools and educators, much less for triggering interventions or remedies. We don't judge doctors based on whether their patients are sick today but by how much patient health improves under their care. Judging professional performance on the basis of a one-moment-in-time X-ray encourages questionable behavior, leads states to play games with standards, and threatens to discredit the X-ray itself.
  • Prodding public sector institutions to set goals, monitor performance, and then reward excellence and address mediocrity has been a signal success for reformers on both the left and the right. Decades of studied effort, touted in iconic books like Reinventing Government and championed through the 1990s by the Gore commission, make clear that sensibly structured accountability systems encourage self-interested workers to take goals seriously, focus on outcomes, and employ all the levers at their disposal to produce those outcomes. But we compromise such "behavior modification" when those on the ground view the targets as unattainable. If workers know they are unlikely to succeed, the goal becomes to avoid trouble when they fail. By making failure inevitable, unrealistic goals have the perverse effect of focusing employees on compliance and encouraging actions that will mask "failure."
  • Bully pulpit exhortation is a legitimate role for federal officials. Dating at least to Bill Bennett's colorful tenure as secretary, the Department of Education has sometimes been a valuable podium from which to promote and energize school reform. Setting high bars and challenging state and local officials to meet them provides political cover to leaders, while lighting fires under laggards. It's great to shine a bright light on performance and then laud or shame schools, states, and districts based on that performance. Yet such efforts are discredited when they are based on X-rays ill-equipped to readily trace progress or when behavior modification schemes lead local officials and educators to react by devoting their energies to bureaucratic compliance on the one hand, and loophole exploitation on the other.

Beyond just picking apart the flaws of NCLB, which has become a varsity sport in recent weeks, the authors take a look at what realistic remedies could be applied to its reauthorization. Let's hope the House Committee on Education and Labor is reading.

They caution against the "sweeping hubris" found in NCLB, something not even present in such landmark social reforms as the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act, which didn't seek to micromanage voting at the precinct level. Instead the authors propose a federal role that sets clear expectations for student achievement; proposes real sanctions such as withholding federal Title I dollars when results are not shown; and improves how "adequate yearly progress" can be fairly measured. You won't find an educator today who doesn't roll his or her eyes when AYP is mentioned. They know this system of measurement, as it's currently structured, is flawed.

It is appropriate for Uncle Sam to demand that every state provide a fine-grained image of student achievement. It's reasonable also to insist that states develop sanctions, remedies, and interventions for schools and districts that are performing badly and not improving. Washington should indeed press states to track performance levels, but "adequate progress" should be based primarily on the academic value that schools add (i.e., the achievement gains their pupils make), not merely on the aggregate level at which students perform.

Moreover, states that are already moving on these fronts do not need federal intervention, much less cookie-cutter prescriptions. It's folly for Congress to draft school-level modifications; far better to require that lagging states act, then move to withhold funds--big bucks, including, if necessary, the whole Title I payment--from any that sit on their hands or post unacceptable results.

It's valuable, too, for Washington to set ambitious goals and exhort everyone to attain them. But the constructive way to do this is by promoting transparency, setting benchmarks, rewarding high achievers, pointing fingers at laggards, and clearing political obstacles. With a consistent metric, call it a national standard, accompanied by national tests, everyone's performance can be fairly tracked and compared.


[Washington] cannot competently micromanage what state, districts, or schools do. And it shouldn't try.

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