by Eric Smith
Eric Smith is a fellow in Education Policy at the George W. Bush Institute
The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary.
Yet the law is still making the news, as several states are applying for waivers from the law. Some school officials have found it difficult to meet the law’s standards requiring that every student—even those that are poor or in minority groups—make progress each year.
NCLB might need some tinkering. As the discussion about reauthorization continues, it’s vital for students and the future of this country that the core principles of accountability, transparency and equality be preserved.
The George W. Bush Institute recently released 10 “principles” that serve as guidance for state accountability. These principles show how to build on the foundation established by NCLB and then further improve the key areas of standards, student groups, parental choice, and college and career readiness.
Over the last decade, the United States has witnessed a dramatic improvement in student performance—especially among previously underserved students at the lowest socioeconomic rungs. Those gains were in large part the result of strong accountability systems, which forced states and school districts to pay more attention to underserved students.
Indeed, one key principle of a strong accountability system is that schools need to be measured against concrete goals to reduce the achievement gap between student groups.
To meet those goals, schools need information in the form of annual tests, and they need that information broken down across various groups, like English Language Learners and African-American students. This data shows where disparities exist.
Another key principle of a meaningful accountability system is that data needs to be published, publicly available, and in a format that non-experts—i.e., parents—can understand the results.
Parents and educators need to know not just how the average student in a school performs, but how the most disadvantaged students are being educated. As accountability has taken hold, we have seen how important it is to measure the performance of traditional subgroups. We are also learning that another critical angle is reviewing the performance of the lowest performing students, referred to as a “super-subgroup” in some states. No school should be rated as high-performing if it doesn’t show gains in the performance of all subgroups.
The nation’s emphasis on public accountability has led to a significant improvement in core students skills. For instance, research from Northwestern University shows that the legislation is responsible for raising math achievement by six to nine months for fourth-graders, and four to 12 months for eighth-graders.
These gains help us ensure that every student graduates from high school ready to do college-level work or start a satisfying career.
Disadvantaged children have seen the greatest gains. African-American children increased their National Assessment of Education Progress scores by 21 points in mathematics between 2000-2011. That’s two grade levels of improvement.
The Brookings Institute has looked at the effect of accountability and concluded these systems have had a “positive effect” on elementary student performance and that much of the gains are “concentrated among traditionally disadvantaged populations.”
Brookings also found that when schools are more accountable to those they serve, students become more engaged in their own education. Specifically, researchers noted marked increases in teacher-reported measures of student engagement, which includes things like attendance rates, timeliness and intellectual interest.
Another essential principle of strong accountability systems is state intervention when schools don’t see achievement rates rise. And the most intensive interventions should occur in schools whose students don’t reach grade-level standards.
In that vein, school choice is an important option for students. Every single student deserves a quality education. It is simply not acceptable for a parent to be forced to keep their child in a failing school in the hope that the local teachers and administrators will eventually clean up their act.
States generally want to be creative, and federal legislation isn’t standing in their way of doing that. Officials are empowered to employ tools beyond the standard choice policy of vouchers, including innovative reforms like allowing students in low-performing schools to get connected with high-quality educators online.
The George W. Bush Institute’s principles call on states to build on the current foundation, apply the lessons learned, and provide parents with an even broader array of choices if their child is trapped in a persistently low performing school.
Recently, President Obama declared that “the best ideas aren’t going to come from Washington alone. Our job is to harness those ideas, and to hold states and schools accountable for making them work.”
That’s exactly right. But that doesn’t require abandoning the core principles of accountability, transparency and equality.