Everyone not chattering about the job numbers is chattering about this morning’s New York Times article on No Child Left Behind and the waivers that are increasingly freeing states from its requirements. In general some waivers were necessary – and some were issued during the Bush Administration, too – because the law was supposed to be reauthorized in 2007 and 2012 is now half over.
But when you read stuff like this line in The Times story, you can’t help but wonder how much of all this is “everybody knows” and how much is based in facts:
“[No Child Left Behind] has been derided for what some regard as an obsessive focus on test results, which has led to some notorious cheating scandals.”
Perhaps, but were there cheating scandals before No Child? Yes. In fact, it’s been a problem since the beginning of efforts to increase accountability in education. Before we get to that, here’s a quick primer on how the law actually works:
First, states have to establish standards – that was a requirement of President Clinton’s 1994 version of the law. Some standards are good and useful for educators while others are vague, too voluminous, or an exercise in trivial pursuit. States then have to test students annual in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. Again, some tests are good, some aren’t. But – and this is key – what the law requires is that an increasing percentage of students reach the “proficient” level on those tests. What it means to be proficient varies by state and is often not rigorous at all (pdf).
What the law does not require is that 100 percent of students are proficient. It doesn’t even have a hard deadline of 2014 because of all the various provisions to give schools credit for making progress. And all students don’t have to take the tests – there are provisions for the normal absenteeism that occurs, students with serious disabilities, English language learners and so forth.
So what the law actually requires is that – over a 16 year timespan since 2001 – about 92 percent of students achieve the “proficient” level on their state tests in order for their schools to make what’s called “adequate yearly progress.” And the law’s big policy shift was requiring that same level of performance for minority, poor, and other traditionally under-served student groups so schools couldn’t hide behind averages that masked persistent low-performance for some students. Whether the tests have any consequence for students is a state by state decision, the federal law is silent on that. And the law doesn’t use the term failing. Schools not making progress are deemed ‘needing improvement.’ That little detail makes it all look a little different given that even average or good schools can need improvement on some measures.
More than a decade after the law’s passage there are a bunch of things that I think should be changed or refined. When the law was passed states did not have the data systems they do now, for instance. But here’s the more basic question: When have we ever had a widespread increase in accountability in education without it being a three-ring circus, policymakers walking back from the brink, and a general bemoaning of things? And how much of all that owes to specifics of policy and how much to broader capacity problems in the system?
Maybe underneath the ins and outs of the waivers the real problem here is that our political system really doesn’t have the tensile strength to sustain a push for accountability over time and our political leaders don’t have the stomach for it or bold enough expectations for our schools. None of the people cheering or jeering today’s article would put up for a moment with having their own kids in schools that couldn’t generally meet the proficiency bars states have established. That’s something they quietly agree on. This is about other people’s children and what’s good enough for them. And that, rather than any one feature of the policy, is probably the root of the problem.