Congress is on a roll. First a budget deal, then a multi-year highway bill, and now a K-12 education bill, whose most previous authorization had dated from 2002—the infamous No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The new version preserves the best parts of NCLB, sheds the most flawed parts, and also hands back more education power from the federal government to the states. It is unclear, however, whether this bill will actually do much to improve student outcomes.
For all its flaws, the NCLB did focus the country’s attention squarely on the problem of education inequality and severely under-performing schools. As we have written in our progress report on federal education policy, inequality in outcomes is the single greatest problem facing the U.S. education system. No country in the rich world has such a strong link between parental income and student test scores. And the outcome gap between rich and poor has grown over time. NCLB for the first time required real accountability for results from educational institutions, linking federal funding to student test score improvements. On paper, this makes sense. All jobs and industries have some form of review and accountability. To keep schools accountable, there needed to be a way to measure outcomes, and the easiest and most rigorous way is through testing.
But NCLB took accountability too far. Its accountability was punitive. It set completely unrealistic expectations about student improvement, requiring that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Schools that were way off track for 100 percent proficiency would have to be reorganized or closed. States that were not on track could lose their federal education funding. The hope was that threatening to take away funding and shutting down schools would propel teachers and principals into action and result in better teaching. No states were on track. To the chagrin of Congressional Republicans, the Obama Administration granted states waivers from punitive measures only if they implemented administration priorities. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was calling the shots instead of Congress, enticing states into accepting Common Core standards, expanding charter schools, and evaluating teachers using their students' test scores.
The results at times were dismal. In some cases where student test scores dramatically improved, there were revelations of faked scores. In the most egregious case in Atlanta, administrators were sent to prison. Too much student time was spent on diagnostic tests. Too many extracurricular subjects like foreign language studies and the arts were cut to make budget space for priority subjects that were tested. Teachers’ unions were up in arms about using student test scores to grade their performance. Some parents wanted their kids to have a break from all the high-stakes tests. Worst of all, across-the-board student performance did not improve beyond the historical trend. In 2015 for the first time in twenty-five years, elementary school math scores actually fell.
With the new education bill, called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), accountability remains, but each state will be free to determine what that accountability looks like—for example, how to assess teacher performance, where student test scores should be, and what the punitive measures should be. The federal government will have to okay state accountability plans, but the general assumption is that these plans will take a big step back from NCLB-level accountability. States must still carry out annual test-taking, but the tests are supposed to be a more well-rounded assessment and include qualitative surveys on students’ emotional well-being. And states must still have some sort of action plan for the worst-performing 5 percent of schools.
But dismantling NCLB and weakening the federal role may not improve student performance. States may not be any more effective at lifting student achievement than the federal government. They weren’t before the NCLB, which is one reason why the feds took on a much more muscular role.
Closing achievement gaps requires things that aren’t in the new education bill: making teachers better and directing more money toward low-income students.
A giant dilemma facing reform movements is that experts still don’t really know what works to improve student performance. We know teachers matter a lot. But we don’t have a good grasp on what makes teachers good or how to train them to become better. Fortunately tons of private philanthropy dollars are being poured into research to try to figure it out.
The bill does not increase or change anything about baseline federal education funding (called Title I) for schools that targets low-income students. There may be plenty of news stories about money going to waste in struggling school districts. Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million gift to Newark schools comes to mind. But academics are now finding good evidence that, on average nationally, big influxes of new dollars to under-performing schools can make a difference in low-income student outcomes.
Let’s hope that giving states more flexibility on accountability will not take the pressure off finding ways to close the rich-poor achievement gap.