When President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2002, he set in motion a dramatic expansion of the Federal role in education. NCLB mandated annual standardized testing of basic skills for students in grades three through eight and required districts to disaggregate scores by race, ethnicity, disability, poverty and other categories. Every school was expected to enable every student in every one of those groups to reach “proficiency” by 2014 or face escalating sanctions. Schools that failed to reach their annual goals were required to offer tutoring; if that didn’t work, then students could choose a different school. If the school continued to miss its targets, the staff might be fired, the school might be closed, or it might be turned over to private managers or to state control. Accountability and choice became the Federal strategy for school reform.
But while NCLB federalized education policy in some respects, it did not do so systematically. The act left states to define the meaning of “proficiency.” Many lowered their standards to prove that they were making progress toward the unrealistic goal of universal proficiency. Consequently, state scores shot up, but national test scores did not. Despite the billions of dollars spent on testing and tutoring, progress under NCLB was meager. In fact, test scores on the federally administered National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) increased more in the years prior to NCLB than in the years following its implementation. And because the act held schools accountable only for scores on tests of reading and mathematics, no incentive existed to teach science, history, geography, civics, literature, foreign languages or the arts.
In 2009, President Barack Obama unveiled his education priorities. Having taken seriously his campaign rhetoric about change, educators expected him to repudiate the Bush program. He did not. Although NCLB was overdue for congressional reauthorization, the Obama Administration left it alone during its first year. Instead, Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan invited states to compete for $5 billion in economic stimulus at a time when all of their budgets were in distress. The competition was dubbed the “Race to the Top.” To qualify, states had to demonstrate their readiness to embrace the Obama Administration’s priorities: charter schools, closing or turning around low-performing schools, and teacher evaluations tied to student test scores.
After persuading 48 of the nation’s fifty states (all but Texas and Alaska) to compete for “Race to the Top” money, the Obama Administration revealed its proposal to reauthorize No Child Left Behind in March 2010. The Administration removed some of the more onerous aspects of NCLB but nonetheless staunchly maintained a tight Federal grip over the nation’s schools. The expectation that 100 percent of all students would be proficient by 2014 was replaced by the expectation that all students would be “college-ready and career-ready” by 2020. But states will still test all students at least once a year in basic skills, and the heaviest penalties will be reserved for the 5,000 schools with the lowest test scores. Those schools face draconian “remedies”: They may be closed; their principal and staff may be fired; they may be turned into charter schools; or they may be handed over to private management organizations or to the state. To date, there is no evidence that any of these remedies is likely to lead to improved outcomes for students. Surely, it would be wiser to encourage states to analyze and address the problems and needs of each school before shutting it down and destroying what may be a vital community institution.
Despite the Administration’s efforts to distance itself from NCLB, its proposal remains rooted in the Bush Administration’s emphasis on accountability and choice. Where they differ, they differ only in degree, not in kind. How likely is it that this Bush/Obama approach will actually improve the nation’s public schools? Is the Federal government using the right policy levers, or not?
To answer these questions, we have to look backward, to 1867, when a small department (without cabinet status) was created to collect information and report to the public on the progress and condition of education. Half a century later, in 1917, Congress passed the Smith-Hughes Act to promote vocational education. Over the years, congressional debates have revealed a deep distrust of any Federal role in education. Each party feared that the other would push its own ideas on the states and local school districts, so the Federal role remained limited. This began to change during World War II, when Congress extended Federal aid to communities where military bases were located. The Soviet Union’s successful launch of the Sputnik satellite into orbit in October 1957 set the stage for an increased Federal role in education. Congress responded to the Soviet achievement in 1958 by passing the National Defense Education Act to promote science, mathematics and foreign language study nationwide, from the primary to the graduate level.
The Federal role grew substantially in the 1960s and 1970s, when Congress and the Federal courts acted to end racial segregation and protect civil rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made Federal officials responsible for ensuring equal opportunity in education, and subsequent legislation extended Federal protection on the basis of gender and disability. In 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act established significant funding and programs for disadvantaged children. Most such funding was distributed by formula to districts and schools with concentrations of poor students.
Then, in the waning days of the Carter Administration in 1980, the U.S. Congress created the Department of Education. The purpose for doing so, stated at the time, was to acknowledge the importance of education by giving it a place in the Cabinet and separating it from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. However, the reigning principle for the new department’s operation was federalism, which means, in effect, leaving the lion’s share of policymaking responsibility and oversight at the state and local levels. (After all, the word “education” does not appear in the Constitution.) The typical Secretary of Education these past three decades has been a Governor who understood and respected the balance of power among the various levels of government. The Department itself consists not of education experts who know the answers to education problems but civil servants who administer a range of complex programs. Of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on public elementary and secondary education, the Federal share is only 8 percent.
Over these past three decades, the Federal role in K–12 public education has been four-fold: First, the Department of Education oversees the flow of Federal funds to support the education of poor students and students with disabilities. Second, it protects the civil rights of students. Third, it conducts research, administers national assessments on a regular basis and disseminates information about the progress and condition of education. Fourth, the Secretary of Education commands a “bully pulpit” to advocate for specific policies to improve education. So, despite the gradual expansion of the Federal role in education in recent decades, top-down control has remained relatively restrained—at least until the past few years.
The Bush Administration’s adoption of NCLB in 2002 and the Obama Administration’s forceful advocacy of similar policies have made the Federal role more muscular than ever. NCLB’s strict regime of testing and accountability expanded Federal power far beyond any precedent, into every public school in the nation. Its “remedies” were highly prescriptive, yet unproven by research or practical experience. Never before had Congress presumed to know how to fix failing schools.
The Obama Administration’s Race to the Top and its proposal for reauthorization of the basic Federal aid program build on this unprecedented legacy, not only in the enthusiasm for vigorous Federal intervention into state and local decision-making but also in the zeal to impose specific reform ideas that are based on ideology rather than evidence. The Race to the Top competition was announced without any specific congressional authorization or oversight, yet the billions of dollars attached to it proved almost irresistible at a time of severe economic recession. Race to the Top did not ask states to offer a plan containing their best ideas; rather, it assumed he Administration had all the best ideas already.
Specifically, the Administration wanted states to open more charter schools, close thousands of low-performing schools, use test scores to evaluate teachers, and agree to adopt common national standards being developed by a consortium headed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. On this last point, most states agreed to do so, but since the standards had not yet been released for public review or tested for their quality in any way when the applications were due, it was impossible to evaluate their quality or whether they might have any discernible effect. Obama even proposed to tie additional Federal funding to the willingness of states to embrace these untested standards. The reauthorization proposal, too, threatens specific punishments for low-performing schools, even though the evidence for the efficacy of these punishments is anecdotal at best.
Because states were desperate to add money to their bare coffers, most states eagerly applied for the Race to the Top competition. To become eligible for the funds, many states repealed legislation that limited the number of privately managed charter schools and that prohibited the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers. Others instituted merit pay policies for teachers, linked to student test scores. The Administration was so delighted by the response of the states that President Obama announced in January that he would add another $1.3 billion to future rounds of the competition. No previous Secretary of Education had been able to persuade so many states to make so many significant changes in such a short time. Even sympathetic observers speculated that Race to the Top signaled the death of federalism in education. When Secretary Arne Duncan revealed the Administration’s agenda for reforming NCLB, no one was surprised that the U.S. Department of Education had taken upon itself the job of reforming the nation’s hardest-pressed schools. What a difference $5 billion can make in a time of austerity! No one, meanwhile, bothered to speculate whether any of this would significantly improve America’s schools. Having reviewed the available evidence, I have concluded that none of it is likely to do so.1
The accountability movement achieved its greatest success with the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002, but the Obama Administration’s renewed commitment to test-based accountability may rank as important as the initial passage of NCLB. It is a curious success, however, for academic progress has been snail-like since 2002 on the only reliable national measure we have—the NAEP.
In fourth-grade reading, the national average went up by three points (on a 500-point scale) from 2003 to 2007, less than the 5-point gain from 2000 to 2003, before NCLB took effect. In eighth-grade reading, there were no gains at all from 1998 to 2007. This certainly reflects poorly on the value of annual state testing, which began in 2003, 18 months after the law was signed, and on the billions invested by states and districts in test preparation and testing. The nature of the accountability system, which cares only about basic skills, devalues the study of non-tested subjects such as literature, the arts, science and history, all of which are necessary ingredients in a sound education.
On the NAEP test of mathematics, students in fourth grade saw a five-point gain from 2003 to 2009 (from 235 points to 240 points). But again, the gain preceding NCLB was far larger (from 226 to 235, or nine points) in only three years, from 2000 to 2003. On the eighth-grade test, the gain from 2003 to 2009 was five points, the same as the gain from 2000 to 2003. In sum, the rate of improvement was no better or worse after the enactment of NCLB and the expenditure of vast new sums on test preparation and testing.
“Accountability” as practiced under NCLB prompted many states to dumb down their tests or to change the way they were graded to inflate scores. The state of Tennessee claimed that 90 percent of its fourth and eighth grade students were proficient on state tests of reading, but only 26 percent were so ranked on NAEP. Similarly, Georgia told its citizens that 87 percent were proficient in reading on its state tests, but only 27 percent were proficient on NAEP. New York claimed that 69 percent were proficient in mathematics, but only 36.7 percent reached that level on NAEP. Many other states eased the scoring on their state tests to give the illusion of progress. Yet so wedded was the political establishment to the idea of accountability that the Obama Administration, joined in chorus by Democrats and Republicans alike, clamored for more accountability, more teachers to be punished and more schools to be privatized or closed.
Choice, too, has been a primary strategy for both Bush and Obama. The Bush Administration followed the Clinton Administration in its support for charter schools. Bush, however, was constrained in his ability to promote school choice because Democrats in Congress were not as enthusiastic about it as were Republicans, and the Bush Department of Education lacked the leverage to compel or induce states to remove their caps on the number of charters. Obama’s Race to the Top achieved what the Bush Administration could only dream of by offering cash-starved states a chance to win hundreds of millions of dollars if they removed all restrictions on the creation of new charter schools. The Obama reauthorization proposal for NCLB may turn thousands of additional schools into privately managed charters.
The position of the Obama Administration on school choice is particularly ironic in light of the traditional ideological divisions over education policy between the two parties. Until the Clinton Administration, that divide was sharp. Aligned with business principles, Republicans advocated choice and accountability, as well as hostility to teachers’ unions, whom they perceived as opposing both. Democrats, by contrast, advocated professionalism (for teachers) and equity (meaning increased funding, especially for disadvantaged students), and were closely allied with the unions. Obama broke through this ideological divide by giving his full support not only to choice and accountability, but also to merit pay, which has always been anathema to the teachers’ unions. In effect, Obama, a President regularly lambasted by Republicans for being too far Left, has expressed an unwavering commitment to the Republican agenda in education, which explains why Republicans such as Newt Gingrich enthusiastically support his education agenda.
The theory behind school choice was that competition would improve education both for those who left the public schools and for those who remained in them. A rising tide would lift all boats as poor children gained choices and public schools competed to keep their customers. Furthermore, it would save tax dollars because charter schools would be more efficient and cost less than the administratively top-heavy public schools. In their 1990 book Politics, Markets, and Schools, John Chubb and Terry Moe assured their readers that choice had the power to unleash innovation and competition and thus to free the schools of the adult interest groups that determined their policies. As choice plans have proliferated, however, the hoped-for benefits have not materialized. Here and there, one does see positive results, but usually they are modest and qualified. There is no consistent evidence demonstrating that vouchers or charters have or can dramatically transform American education for the better.
There have been noteworthy voucher programs in three districts: Milwaukee, Cleveland and the District of Columbia. The first two were created by their state legislatures in 1990 and 1995, respectively, and the third by Congress in 2003, when it was under Republican control. Some researchers identified benefits for students who attended voucher schools; others claimed to find none. Both probably found what they were looking for. No one argues that children have been harmed, but there is no evidence of historic achievement surges by students in these programs either. The most positive evaluation was reported for the 1,700 students in the voucher program in Washington, DC. The first two annual evaluations showed no significant improvement, but the third-year evaluation showed sizable gains in reading (but not in math) for certain students, including those who came from schools that had not needed improvement, those in the upper two-thirds of the test score distribution, and girls. There were no gains in reading or math for secondary students, boys or students in the highest priority groups: low test scorers and students in failing schools. Clearly, vouchers offered no panacea.
Nor did the expansion of choice in Milwaukee and Cleveland improve the public schools in those cities. Cleveland continued to be one of the lowest-scoring cities tested by NAEP, and it was joined in the cellar by Milwaukee when it was tested by NAEP in 2009. Competition with vouchers and charters in those cities had not lifted all boats.
The nation’s first charter school opened in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1991. Since then, about 5,000 charter schools have been established, some by for-profit corporations, some by mom-and-pop organizations, some by non-profit chains, some by community groups. Although charters in Boston and New York City have received positive evaluations, most other charter studies conclude that, on average, they are no better or worse than regular public schools. In 2009, Stanford University economist Margaret Raymond, funded by pro-charter foundations including the Walton Family Foundation, conducted the largest charter school evaluation so far. Raymond and her team analyzed data from 2,403 charters in 15 states (about half of all charters and 70 percent of all charter students in the nation at the time). They found that only 17 percent of the charters performed better than comparable public schools, 37 percent had learning gains that were significantly worse, and 46 percent had gains that were no different from the comparable traditional public school. In sum, 83 percent were no better or worse than traditional public schools. Even in districts like Boston and New York City, where charter schools had better records than those posted in this national study, the charters typically enrolled smaller numbers of high-needs students—immigrants, the homeless, those with limited English, and special education students—as compared to public schools. In addition, charters frequently have a high degree of attrition back to public schools, usually among lower-performing students. Obviously, these factors skew the data.
Certainly, there are many people in powerful positions in the Federal government, editorial boards, the business world and major foundations who still believe that choice is the answer to the problem of mediocre achievement. But to date, the evidence in support of this belief is weak to nonexistent. The inordinate attention devoted to charters, which enroll only 3 percent of students nationally, leaves untouched the public education system, which enrolls the vast majority of the remainder. This strategy will not produce the great improvement that is needed in American education.
Another linchpin of the Obama Education plan is the belief that teacher quality can be significantly upgraded if teachers are evaluated on the basis of student test scores. The approach is appealing on common-sense grounds. Shouldn’t great teachers produce higher test scores? Perhaps, but it has yet to be substantiated that what seems common sense actually makes real sense. Test scores depend on a variety of factors, including student effort, not just teacher effectiveness. In addition, it is impossible to predict whether teachers will produce test score gains year after year other than by observation of data. Thus it will take three to five years to find the teachers who are presumably most effective. And then there is the additional problem of moving such teachers to classrooms where they are needed.
The current enthusiasm for using test scores to judge teachers ignores the reality that middle and high school students spend more time with their friends and their families than with their teachers, whom they see for an hour or so a day, five days a week. Moreover, a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that the typical American child from eight to 18 is engaged with electronic devices on average about 7.5 hours per day, or 53 hours per week. Compare that to the amount of time that the same student interacts with his teacher. There was a time when students were held accountable for their behavior and effort. If they failed, the onus was on them, not their teacher. Surely, the student’s own effort, the family’s engagement with the child, the socioeconomic circumstances of the family, and the popular culture do affect student performance, yet only the teacher will be punished if the student does not improve his test scores. Al Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, used to say, “Now let me get this straight: You’re saying the students will try hard on the test to help the teacher?”
Today, so much energy is invested in the hunt for “bad” teachers that it seems likely that evaluations will become more stringent than ever, and that they will rely on hard data, meaning test scores, more than ever as well. Some ineffectual teachers will be removed, and that’s a good thing. But many teachers will become wise to the ways of inflating test scores by any means necessary. They will teach their pupils to pick the right answer on the test, which will raise their scores if not their knowledge. Some teachers will focus on test preparation and survive. Some excellent teachers who hold standardized tests in contempt will lose their jobs. Some who might have become great teachers will go into another line of work rather than subject themselves to oversight by pettifoggery. In the end, we will still be looking for the magic keys to the kingdom of academic excellence, because incompetent teachers are not the primary cause of our educational ills.
We have had an incoherent public school system in the United States for many years, and our current course will only make matters worse. Academic achievement is the product of a solid education that is grounded not only in basic skills but in history, literature, geography, the arts, science, mathematics, foreign languages, health and physical education. We are now in a “reform” frenzy that measures only basic skills, which is stupid.
But even the best schools and teachers cannot succeed, no matter how splendid the curriculum, unless students are healthy and ready to learn. We have known for a long time that there is a correlation between students’ social and economic well-being and their academic achievement. Today’s “reformers”—like Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein and others associated with the Education Equality Project—reject the idea that social and economic factors are related to low student achievement. They insist that anyone who speaks of the disadvantages created by poverty is just making excuses for bad teachers. They ignore the fact that poverty is closely correlated with academic achievement in every social science survey. They may be able to point to individuals or schools that succeeded “despite the odds”, but there are still odds, and they weigh heavily against students who grow up in poverty, or without the adequate supervision, basic nutrition or health care that most of us take for granted.
Despite the enormous enthusiasm for choice, accountability, and “no excuses” on the part of politicians, business leaders and policymakers, these policies will not give our nation the strong and vibrant public school system that it needs. The fact that these policies now enjoy bipartisan support is not evidence that they are or might be effective. A quality educational system must provide a sound and balanced curriculum to all students. Families must do their part, and so must students themselves, by showing up every day, doing their homework and putting forth the effort required for success. When students do not have the support of their families, then the community must step in to ensure that children have a fair chance to succeed.
Our nation needs to retool basic policies: We must raise standards for entry into teaching so that every elementary school teacher has a degree in two subjects taught in school; we must ensure that teachers have the pedagogical skills to manage their classes; we must insist that principals are themselves master teachers, since we rely on them to evaluate teachers; we need a highly professional staff in every school and a strong curriculum, things the best-performing nations have.
There are no shortcuts here, no silver bullets, certainly no panaceas that the Federal government can pull out of a magic hat. Education requires the work of many willing participants: students, teachers, parents and the community at large. That’s what makes good schools.