What to make of this morning’s Times lead story on the lack of gap closing under NCLB? The obvious first question is whether the claim itself is supported. The NAEP graphs presented suggest some progress since 92 in overall achievement, but little progress in gap closing. The story also effectively gathers together a number of recent reports, including some from those like Fordham who are pro-NCLB but are empirically honest in reporting a lack of progress in gap closing. Given that there has not been a RAND-style evaluation of NCLB, for now, I think this story and the reports it references will be accepted by partisans on both sides of the debate as evidence that there has been little overall progress in closing achievement gaps.
If so, then what to make of it? As the day goes on, I predict it will serve as a kind of Rorschach test for NCLB: critics will claim vindication, proponents will accuse critics of “making excuses” and argue for the need for redoubled efforts, and policy wonks of all kinds will use it as an opportunity to pimp their preferred education strategies (Ed Trust has already done so in the NYT story). If there are interesting reactions today I will post them here. (Eduland can also e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I don’t claim to be immune from this dynamic, but with that caveat, here are two quick thoughts.
First, from a research perspective, it is not surprising news. The state programs that served as a basis for NCLB in North Carolina and Texas showed some evidence of overall progress in raising NAEP scores (although there were conflicting analyses on Texas, as you may remember), but they did not show progress in reducing racial achievement gaps on NAEP. See the Thernstroms summary of the research in No Excuses — even those generally partial to the approach had to acknowledge that the evidence just wasn’t there. From this perspective, these reports are progress in that they bring a dose of realism to a discussion that has seen too much in the way of grand utopian pronouncements — i.e., all children proficient by 2014 — and too little in terms of serious policy talk about the sheer difficulty of closing achievement gaps and the various strategies that would need to be employed to make even incremental progress.
Second, from a policy perspective, I think (and here is that Rorschach test) it reveals the weakness of external accountability as a lever to accomplish what is one of the most difficult of our social policy objectives — breaking the link between family poverty and school outcomes. In a sense, setting standards and measuring progress through assessments are the low-hanging fruit — what they leave undone is the much more difficult task of actually helping kids do tomorrow what they couldn’t do today. These questions–of which accountability systems are one part but a relatively small part–is where the policy dialogue needs to go. Let’s hope today’s story sounds the bell and starts that conversation.