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Earlier today, Reps. Kline and Rokita introduced the House version of reauthorization for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose most recent iteration was No Child Left Behind.
In their plan, Reps. Kline and Rokita call for a transfer of management of school accountability systems from the federal government, whose “Adequate Yearly Progress” definitions and sanctions were a central part of NCLB, to states. States would have to report student performance, disaggregated by race and economic factors, and develop accountability and teacher evaluation systems in exchange for federal dollars. But, states would be free to develop these programs as they best see fit.
Groups from across the political spectrum expressed their disappointment with this development, saying that “the legislation falls short of the lessons learned and the need to ensure all students, especially those most in need, are college and career ready.” In the Huffington Post’s coverage of the mark-up, Rep. Jared Polis called it a “retreat” from accountability.
As Inigo Montoya says in The Princess Bride “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
It’s not a retreat when a commander calls off the heavy artillery in order to allow his infantry to advance. It’s a recognition that sometimes you need the big guns, and sometimes you need a smaller, more agile fighting force.
Similarly, it’s not a retreat for the federal government to realize that it is too blunt of an instrument to make school-level decisions for 100,000 schools in 14,000 districts in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It is not to say that states have the best track record of doing this themselves, nor that every state would automatically do a better job, but as John Chubb and Constance Clark pointed out recently, even under No Child Left Behind there have been large and persistent differences between states with respect to achievement.
Couple this with the Department of Education’s decision to issue waivers to NCLB requirements — and then waivers for their waivers — and I think it is reasonable to see federal education policy in the future as no more coherent than having states developing their own plans. The difference is that when states develop their own plans, the architects on the state board, in state legislature, and at the governor’s mansion are much more likely to be held to account by voters and taxpayers than the Secretary of Education or distant bureaucrats in the Department of Education charged with ensuring compliance.
While we’re on the subject, I’m also not so sure that the “lessons” we learned from NCLB include the understanding that federally dictated sanctions were an effective means of improving school performance. In fact, recent research by Thomas Ahn and Jacob Vigdor showed that the vast majority of NCLB sanctions had no effect on student achievement. In their words:
Most of the individual sanctions in the NCLB regime—including offering students transfers, tutoring, or modest “corrective actions”—appear to have had no effect.
It is true that overall performance in the US is up post-NCLB, and that the really serious consequences of NCLB like whole school restructuring appeared to have some effect, but as bullish as Ahn and Vigdor are on NCLB, even they recommend a more active state and local role in accountability:
NCLB relied on schools to figure out how to improve performance on their own but retained a top-down incentive structure. States and districts can play a much greater—and potentially much more effective—role in crafting rewards or punishments for schools.
Maybe the Kline-Rokita bill reflects the lessons we’ve learned after all — accountability is important, but the federal government might not be the best people to have in the driver’s seat.
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