Certainly the proposed reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act coming out of a Congressional conference committee this week isn’t a done deal. The divide among Congressional Republicans in control of Congress on nearly every policy front — along with the divide between Republicans and the Obama Administration — still lowers the chances of reauthorization. Hardcore movement conservatives within Congressional Republican ranks are already expressing dismay about how the reauthorized bill increases federal subsidies even though research (including a study released last week by the Brookings Institution) have shown that Title I and other programs have not improved student achievement. The Heritage Foundation and its political action fund, which have already criticized the deal because it “fails to restore federalism in education”, will likely make a push on House Republicans to stymie its passage.
Meanwhile the Obama Administration, whose legacy on education policy would be all but eviscerated under the proposed No Child reauthorization, could still exercise plenty of effort to render its passage null and void. Even with the administration’s partial-reverse last month on support for standardized testing, it still has no interest in any proposal that would limit executive authority (both its own and that of future administrations) on education policymaking. Even with proposed law incorporating certain elements of the Obama Administration’s own effort to eviscerate No Child’s accountability provision through its waiver gambit, the overall bill likely still goes too far for Barack Obama’s own liking.
But there is a chance that this reauthorization will make it out of Congress and become law. Even if it doesn’t, twp things are certainly clear: That the strong federal accountability measures that have helped spur reforms that have helped more children succeed will be tossed into the ash bin. And that children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, will be the ones who will lose.
It would be an understatement to call the name of the proposed reauthorization, the Every Student Succeeds Act, a mockery of efforts to help all children succeed. By limiting the use of test data, graduation rates, and other objective measures of student achievement to a mere 51 percent of school and district ratings under statewide accountability systems, the bill essentially declares that improving student achievement, the most-important thing schools must do to help children build brighter futures, doesn’t matter. If the legislation is passed, states, districts, and schools won’t have to focus on providing children with the high-quality teaching and curricula they need to be literate and numerate enough to succeed in higher education and life.
Even worse, the reauthorization allows states to measure districts and schools on such amorphous categories as improving school climate and family engagement (and requiring that those categories account for 49 percent of ratings). This wouldn’t be so bad if states were required under the proposal to use objective measures of school climate such as out-of-school suspension rates (which can provide some insight on how school are serving), and were required to develop uniform chronic truancy rates that fully expose how districts are hiding the numbers of kids poorly-served by teaching, curricula, and cultures. But the legislation doesn’t require such data. So it is likely that states will include subjective surveys of school leaders and teachers. This will result in the proposed reauthorization sending the loud and clear message that learning doesn’t matter.
Meanwhile the proposed reauthorization embraces one of the worst aspects of the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit: Limiting accountability and interventions to just the lowest-performing five percent of schools and those with wide achievement gaps. As Ann Hyslop, now of Bellwether Education Partners, demonstrated two years ago in a study for New America Foundation, that aspect of the waiver gambit allowed for 73 percent of 6,058 failure mills in 16 states identified under No Child in 2011-2012 to escape scrutiny. Altogether, 4,458 schools were allowed to provide shoddy curricula and instruction to 2.4 million children; this included 578 failure mills serving 319,000 children that would have been forced to overhaul their operations after six years of failure. Because the five percent limit would now apply to every state (and not just to those currently under the waiver gambit), the futures of millions more children will be ignored.
Further complicating matters is that the reauthorization would weaken the transparency that is critical to any form of real accountability. By allowing traditional districts (with permission from states) to replace state testing regimes with exams such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the legislation will make it even more difficult to determine how well school operators and the adults who work within them are serving all children. This also makes a mockery of implementing Common Core’s reading and math standards, which are geared to ensuring that all children receive comprehensive college-preparatory curricula that they will need for lifelong success.
All in all, the proposed reauthorization is a weakening of the strong accountability has that has helped more children gain brighter futures. As Thomas Ahn of the University of Kentucky and Duke University’s Jacob Vigdor determined in a study of North Carolina schools released last year, No Child’s accountability measures have helped the Tar Heel State improve achievement and even helped families in failing schools move into better-performing ones. On average, a North Carolina school failing AYP for the first time improved its math performance by five percent of a standard deviation. A poor-performing Tar Heel State school under Needs Improvement for a fifth consecutive year (and forced to develop a restructuring plan) improved reading performance by six percent of a standard deviation, while math achievement improved by nearly three percent of a standard deviation.
The improvements seen in North Carolina extend to the rest of the nation. As data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows, No Child’s accountability provisions (along with other reforms) have led to declines in illiteracy and innumeracy among poor and minority kids. This includes a 12 percentage point decline in the number of black fourth-graders reading Below Basic between 2002 and 2015, as well as a five percentage point decline in the number of black fourth-graders reading at Proficient and Advanced levels. With a five percentage point increase in the number of all children reading at Proficient and Advanced levels within that period — as well as increases in the percentages of kids from poor and minority backgrounds taking Advanced Placement and other college-preparatory courses — the benefits of No Child’s accountability measures have also helped high-achieving kids and those from minority backgrounds often ignored by traditional districts before the law’s passage.
The benefits of No Child’s particular focus on holding states and school operators accountable for improving achievement for children from poor and minority households can also been seen in the other reforms spurred by the law. This includes the expansion of high-quality public charter schools, which have proven to improve achievement for many kids from poor and minority households. As Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes has shown in its evaluation of schools in 41 urban communities, charters help kids attain 40 more days of math learning over their traditional district peers. The percentage of fourth-grade charter school students reading Below Basic served by public charter schools declined by 10 percentage points (from 44 percent to 34 percent) between 2009 and 2015, as measured on NAEP, versus a mere two percentage point decline (from 33 percent to 31 percent) for peers in traditional districts.
This isn’t to say that No Child is an unquestioned success. Because the law reaffirmed the role of states in setting education policy and gave them flexibility to meet the law’s requirements, many states gamed the law by failing to elevate (and in some cases, deliberately lower) standards and proficiency targets, then moving to ramp them up just a few years in order to make the case for ending accountability. No Child also didn’t address the super-clusters within public education that shape what happens in classrooms; this includes university schools of education, which continue to do a shoddy job of recruiting and training the teachers whose talents are the most-critical factor in improving (or bringing down) student achievement.
Yet for all of its flaws, No Child was the single-biggest advance in education policy, both at the federal level and among states and local governments, since the Defense Education Act of 1958. For the first time in the history of American public education, federal education policy set clear goals for improving student achievement in reading and mathematics, and finally focused attention on using data in measuring teacher quality. It also made it clear to suburban districts that they could no longer continue to commit educational malpractice against poor and minority children, as well as focused American public education on achieving measurable results instead of condemning kids to low expectations.
Thanks to No Child’s focus on graduation rates, researchers, news outlets, and advocates shed light on the nation’s education crisis, and revealed how states shamefully reported inaccurate graduation rate numbers to hide the reality that far too many children were dropping out. The revelations forced education officials to take much-needed steps in reporting accurate (and sobering) numbers. Most importantly, No Child also proved that accountability (and the information on performance that it unleashes) works. For reform-minded governors and school leaders, No Child’s accountability measures gave them the tools they needed to beat back opposition to their efforts from traditionalists in their own states. Without No Child, far more children would be illiterate and innumerate than now.
But if the masterminds behind the misnamed Every Student Succeeds Act have their way, the futures of children, especially those from the poor and minority households long-abused educationally by American public education, will be condemned to poverty and prison. This may be pleasing to them and to traditionalists (along with erstwhile reformers) who support passing it. But it is morally reprehensible, intellectually indefensible, and a violation of both the federal civil rights obligation and basic humanity. Everyone involved in crafting and supporting this shoddy replacement for No Child should be ashamed of themselves.