In nearly eight years, the federal No Child Left Behind school reforms have become perhaps the most controversial yet far-reaching educational policies of the past four decades. Opponents are turning their fire on No Child now that it is up for renewal this year.
Some congressional critics have called for releasing the states from what they describe as "costly mandates," which include conducting annual student assessments, identifying schools that fail to make "adequate yearly progress" and imposing increasingly severe sanctions against "failing" schools. Others contend that No Child causes schools to focus on math and reading to the detriment of other subjects, teach narrowly to standardized tests and target students who are close to achieving proficiency while neglecting both the lowest- and highest-achieving students.
While critics have many valid concerns, I would strongly urge Congress to mend — not end — the No Child reforms. Based on research I have done with Thomas Dee at Swarthmore College, I find No Child does improve student performance in certain areas. With changes, it could improve achievement further.
The federal legislation, an extension of Lyndon Johnson's Elementary and Secondary Education Act of the 1960s, is not perfect. Accountability programs that rely on certain testing approaches have flaws. Indeed, in prior research on Chicago's accountability program in the mid-1990s, I found that the policy led teachers to "teach to the test" and, in some cases, even to change student exams to boost scores for their classes.
However, when studying student performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress — the gold standard federal assessment that is less susceptible to teaching to the test or cheating — Dee and I found that No Child Left Behind increased math performance substantially, particularly among low-income students and students of color.
We compared student performance trends in states with no prior school accountability with those in states that had adopted No Child-like accountability policies prior to the adoption of No Child. We found that No Child Left Behind increased the proportion of fourth-grade students meeting a basic math proficiency level by 10 percentage points (or 16 percent) and increased the fraction scoring at the proficient level or above by 5.6 percentage points (27 percent).
Perhaps even more important, these gains were particularly strong among lower-income and Latino students. For example, the fraction of Latino students scoring at the basic level or higher increased from roughly 40 percent to over 50 percent as a result of No Child Left Behind. Because white students and students who were not eligible for subsidized lunch also made strong gains under No Child, the legislation led to modest reductions in the gap between poor and nonpoor students.
We also did not find any evidence that students at the bottom benefited at the expense of students at the top. Students in the 10 percent of achievement as well as the top 25 percent showed considerable gains under No Child. The results for eighth-grade math were less dramatic, but also positive.
In contrast, there is no evidence of a significant increase in fourth- or eighth-grade reading performance.
This is consistent with what one sees in the national trends. NAEP reading scores have changed little for white students since the early 1990s. Trends among African-American and Latino students are somewhat more encouraging, but in neither fourth nor eighth grade does one see an increase in achievement following the introduction of No Child Left Behind.
Is the glass half-empty or half-full?
It seems safe to say that No Child Left Behind has been more successful than many big-ticket federal programs, yet less successful than many had hoped. In my view, there is enough water in the glass to continue drinking.
But No Child Left Behind should be changed in several ways:
- Congress should abandon the goal of having all students be proficient in certain subjects by 2014. While laudable, this timeline is unrealistic and creates an incentive for states to set low proficiency standards. Instead, legislators should change the law to require states to use growth-based measures of student performance, which would hold schools accountable for the improvement that students make each year rather than focusing on the fraction meeting an arbitrary proficiency threshold. This focus on student growth reduces the incentives for schools to target particular students and encourages schools to adopt long-term approaches to helping students.
- Facilitate better coordination between federal and state accountability systems. Many states have their own accountability systems that rate schools by different criteria than the federal system. This often leads to a situation in which the same school is rated highly on one system and poorly on the other. In the inaugural year of No Child, about 56 percent of schools that received an "A" on Florida's accountability system failed to make annual progress under the federal standard. This disconnect between state and federal accountability programs generates confusion among teachers and parents, and reduces public confidence in education reform.
- States should be given greater flexibility to target federal resources on the most disadvantaged schools rather than serving all schools that fail to make annual progress.
- The U.S. Department of Education should encourage states to be more aggressive in shutting down or taking over dysfunctional schools. To help support this extra responsibility, states could be allowed to reallocate money from other parts of the No Child Left Behind program. For example, nearly all observers agree that the supplemental education services offered under No Child have had little, if any, impact on student achievement. This money could to put to better use by supporting state departments of education that have suffered substantial cuts during the recent recession.
- Emphasize the use of research-based practices that work. At the end of the day, school reform affects student learning by influencing what happens inside a classroom. One implicit goal of No Child was to encourage schools to use practices that have proved successful.
While this may have occurred to some extent, decisions about educational interventions still are too often driven by anecdotal evidence, ideology or inertia. ("This is what we've always used.")
A recent federally funded study of four popular early elementary math curricula found that two programs improved student learning substantially more than the others. Yet, thousands of schools continue to use the less effective programs.
There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for an education system as diverse as America's. And I certainly would not recommend that the federal government micromanage curriculum decisions for local schools.
However, the federal government should do more to make sure that credible evaluations of effective practices are conducted and that the results of those evaluations are widely disseminated. To help ensure the spread of successful strategies, the federal government could provide financial incentives for local school districts to adopt certain evidence-based interventions.
Of course, schools cannot be expected to cure all of society's ills. Families and neighborhoods exert powerful influences on a child's learning. Aside from the fixes to No Child Left Behind, research suggests that resources devoted to promoting school readiness will yield substantial returns in student achievement.
A high-quality education is key to our nation's and Michigan's prosperity. While No Child is a complicated and imperfect program, Americans should not retreat from holding schools accountable for student learning.
Brian A. Jacob is the Walter H. Annenberg professor of education policy, professor of economics and director of the Center on Local, State and Urban Policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. He has taught in an East Harlem middle school and is a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.