Unlike AEI, George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy largely got it right with No Child.

Unlike AEI, George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy largely got it right with No Child.

One wouldn’t expect that the American Enterprise Institute’s report on the effectiveness of the No Child Left Behind Act and its accountability provisions would be anything but unfavorable. After all, AEI’s education czar, Rick Hess, has never had much fondness for No Child; in particular, he has blamed the law (as well as his allies among centrist Democrat and civil rights-oriented reformers) of fostering what he calls an “achievement gap mania” which has led to “education policy that has shortchanged many children”. [Your editor  forcefully shredded Hess’ assertions two years ago, and, as you can imagine, he didn’t take too kindly to it.] Duke Professor Jacob Vigdor, who, along with University of Kentucky’s Thomas Ahn, a co-wrote the report, shares similar views, arguing most-recently in a piece in RealClearMarkets on efforts to help all students take algebra and other college preparatory math that school reformers have a mistaken “focus on [stemming educational] inequality.”

threethoughslogoGiven these facts, the report’s point of view on No Child was never in doubt, and the report’s overall conclusion about it, to some extent, was already predetermined. This isn’t to say that the AEI report doesn’t at least try to give No Child honest consideration. If anything, when one focuses squarely on the data and other evidence provided, it is clear that No Child has actually been successful in spurring a decade of systemic reforms that have helped more children stay on the path to lifelong success.

The problem is that Ahn and Vigdor ignore their own data to offer recommendations that would do little more than roll back the very tools that have helped so many kids. This common flaw of think tank research — conclusions that don’t match with the data provided — makes the AEI report one than is less than useful to reformers and policymakers alike.

The good news is that Ahn and Vigdor concede that No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions, which led to the development of state-level accountability systems for holding districts and schools accountable for providing high-quality education for all children, “have beneficial systemic effects”. By shining harsh light on the low performance of schools as well as prescribing consequences for continued failure, No Child’s accountability provisions forced districts to focus on improving student achievement, especially for poor and minority children who had long been ignored. In the case of North Carolina, for example, the mere threat of No Child’s sanctions alone led to many schools that were identified as failing for the first time to take on the kind of reforms needed to improve student achievement; on average, a Tar Heel State school improved its math performance by five percent of a standard deviation, while the performance of an “average-performing student” increased from the 50th percentile to the 52nd percentile in a single year. No Child’s requirement of forcing schools to restructure after six years of persistent failure also works; a school in North Carolina forced to restructure after six consecutive years of laggard performance did improve student achievement by five percent of a standard deviation in both reading and math.

Through use of the research done on North Carolina, Ahn and Vigdor also correctly shot down the argument made by some (most-notably Hess, along with Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute) that No Child’s focus on stemming achievement gaps led to high-performing students being shortchanged. This corresponds with Dropout Nation‘s analysis of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which shows that average reading and math scores for top-performing students improved between 2002 and 2011 (versus almost no change between 1998 and 2002, before No Child was implemented), while the percentage of students reaching proficient and advanced levels in reading and mathematics has actually increased since the passage of No Child (including a four percentage point increase in the number of students reaching such levels in reading between 2002 and 2011, versus a three percentage point increase between 1998 and 2002, before No Child’s implementation). While Ahn and Vigor note that North Carolina’s implementation of AYP — including merit bonuses to teachers who increased student test score growth — may have ameliorated any possible “adverse impacts” on either top-performing or struggling students, they conclude that “leaving high performers behind… is not an inherent feature of an accountability system.” If anything, No Child’s focus on stemming achievement gaps — and helping poor and minority kids receive high-quality teaching and curricula — yields benefits for all children.

Ahn’s and Vigdor’s conclusions about the success of No Child’s accountability provisions is especially interesting because it is based on data they culled from North Carolina, a state that didn’t embrace systemic reform as wholeheartedly as others such as Florida. Given that their data and conclusions derive largely from experiences in one state, one could argue that the underlying data isn’t representative of No Child’s impact on a national level. But based on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, this argument doesn’t necessarily hold. The percentage of Tar Heel State fourth-graders reading Below Basic declined by a mere two percentage points between 2003 and 2011, versus the four percentage point decline experienced nationwide and Florida’s eight percentage point decline in the number of students struggling with literacy. The nine percent decline in the percentage of low-income Tar Heel fourth-grade young black men reading Below Basic merely kept pace with the national average decline, and trailed the Sunshine State’s 16 percent decline, while the five percent decline in the percentage of poor young white men in fourth grade struggling with literacy was lower than both the six percent national average decline, and Florida’s 16 percent decline. If No Child helped states such as North Carolina make changes that led to important steps in helping all students succeed — and spurred aggressive reform states such as Florida make even greater improvements — then it is hard for anyone to conclude that No Child was anything other than a success.

Meanwhile the AEI report makes some important points about some of No Child’s shortcomings. Ahn and Vigdor rightfully note that No Child’s school choice provision, which allows families with kids in failing schools to move them into better-performing operations within a district, didn’t achieve much; this is because districts often failed to inform families about their options — often letting them know at the end of the school year instead of mid-year (when families could do the work needed to make better-informed decisions) — along with the reality that most failing districts have few high-performing schools to offer in the first place; as a result, few families ever had opportunity to use the option. Reformers should learn from the problems with No Child’s school choice provision and push for the expansion of school choice beyond the district — including inter-district choice programs such as those in place in Michigan and Indiana, as well as the expansion of voucher programs and charter schools.

The report also correctly notes that No Child’s Supplemental Educational Services provision, under which children would be provided tutoring services, didn’t yield much in the way of good results. Ahn and Vigdor get plenty wrong in their quick analysis of why SES didn’t lead to any improvements in student achievement; their assertion that the SES provision was “unfunded” (and thus, required districts to hand over a share of their Title 1 dollars) is incorrect because it was a penalty that districts had to accept in exchange for federal dollars, while they fail to look at the implementation issues that came with SES (including the fact that state education departments, which are charged with selecting and monitoring tutoring providers, often lacked the capacity to either hold vendors or districts accountable). At the same time, reformers do need to apply the correct lessons from the poor implementation of the SES provision; this includes building up the capacity of state education departments to better monitor tutoring providers, a lesson that can be applied to the oversight of all school providers.

Based on the data, one would think that Ahn and Vigdor would call for Congress and the Obama Administration should build upon No Child’s accountability provisions — and even expand them by focusing on sectors of American public education not touched directly by the law, including the university schools of education whose failures in training teachers is an underlying culprit of the nation’s education crisis. One would even expect the report to argue strongly against the evisceration of No Child’s accountability provisions being undertaken by the administration as part of its less-than-thoughtful waiver gambit. Instead, Ahn and Vigdor offer a conclusion that isn’t based on the research presented in the report.

Ahn and Vigdor are right that student test score growth data (in the form of Value-Added) should be a critical part of any (unlikely) future revamp of No Child’s accountability measures; in fact, most states have already done this thanks in part to the move by former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings several years ago to allow growth models. But their most-important recommendation– that No Child’s provisions forcing states and districts to overhaul and even close failing schools should be ditched in favor of allowing districts “to design their own sanction regimes” — goes against the evidence that the toughest penalties actually work. More importantly, the recommendation also fails to consider the reality that districts have no incentive to overhaul their own operations. Why? The influence of National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates, which are the biggest players in school board races and are the most-opposed to any measure that leads to loss of clout (and the comfortable work conditions rank-and-file members enjoy), all but ensures that districts will do as little as possible to undertake reform measures without the threat of state or federal intervention. The cultures of dysfunction within traditional district bureaucracies — especially those of failing systems — also make it unlikely for districts to improve their operations.

In fact, it is the very unwillingness of districts (often driven by the influence exerted by traditionalist forces such as affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers) to address their systemic issues that led to the passage of No Child more than a decade ago, as well as the efforts of reformers, governors and chambers of commerce in southern states to develop the accountability measures embraced in the law. The unwillingness of districts to do well by all kids, along with the realization that higher levels of education spending weren’t leading to better results, is also the reason why reform-minded governors and legislators, have also pushed hard on other reforms such as expanding school choice. The federal government has played a strong role in aiding those efforts through steps such as the passage of No Child, along with moves such as the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top, all of which reaffirm the constitutionally granted role of states to control education policy.

[There are problems with Ahn’s and Vigdor’s other conclusions, including arguing against ditching laggard teachers. But because the study doesn’t even cover those issues, the recommendations aren’t even worth discussing.]

Ahn and Vigdor should know this by now, as should AEI’s education policy shop. That they chose to ignore these facts (along with data they cite in their own research) isn’t shocking. As I mentioned earlier, AEI doesn’t have a favorable view of No Child (or federal education policy) in the first place, and doesn’t think that stemming achievement gaps is a good idea. The fact that AEI has long ago bought into the mistaken notion that education decisions should be driven almost solely by districts — a corruption of the “laboratories of democracy” notion originally coined by famed jurist Louis Brandeis in describing dual federalism (and states driving policy within their own boundaries) – also factors in the thinking. As a result, it becomes difficult for AEI to admit that the role of the federal government in supporting systemic reform at the state level — a role embraced in some form or another by nearly every president since Dwight David Eisenhower (and aggressively supported by the last two White House occupants) — actually makes sense. It also makes it difficult for AEI to acknowledge that simply leaving districts to their own devices, which is what states and the federal government has done for most of the past 150 years, hasn’t led to the development of policies and practices — from ability-tracking and the comprehensive high school model, to near-lifetime employment in the form of tenure — that has led to the problems besetting American public education (and ultimate, children).

The Ahn and Vigdor report could have been a rather insightful piece on why accountability is important in driving systemic reform. In some ways, it is. But by arguing conclusions that don’t match the evidence, the report is nowhere as useful as it could have been.