Monday, August 12, 2013

NCLB and Accountability Schizophrenia

In reviewing news stories from last week, I couldn't help but notice the outlandish claims being levied both for and against NCLB, and the fact that they were both coming from conservative commentators.  Vicki E. Alger, the Director of the Women for School Choice Project, published a piece titled "Don't Try to Fix 'No Child Left Behind,' Just End It."  She argued that federal accountability was flawed, that educational authority should be returned to localities, and that the federal government should refrain from passing any education legislation until there is a constitutional clause specifically authorizing a federal role in education.  (I thought about sending her an email alerting her to Congress's constitutional power to spend for the general welfare, but thought better of it, since that was not her real point).  Her solution: "state lawmakers should enact and expand parental choice programs. Today, 250,000 students nationwide are benefiting from parental choice programs. Rigorous scientific research proves parental choice works; parental choice saves money; parental choice is constitutional; and, parental choice programs change children's lives for the better."  I too am a fan of choice when it is controlled in a way that produces integration and equitable opportunities.  I did not take her proposal to be one that would place any limits on choice.  This, I believe, would be a disaster for those most in need.  

On the other hand,  Paul Peterson, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, published a piece in the Wall Street Journal arguing that we need to return to the core of NCLB.  His reasoning is that the black white achievement gap among 9 year olds has increased during the Obama Administration.  He attributes the increase to Obama's policies and argues that NCLB closed achievement gaps during the Bush administration.  His sweeping claims based on minimal data points is mind boggling.  As I pointed out in Civil Rights, Charter Schools, and Lessons to Be Learned, making causal assertions in education is particularly dangerous, even when good data is available.  Moreover, it is not clear to me how Peterson can point to any specific policy that would have produced a significant change in the achievement gap since Obama took office and would have already shown up in the data.  

Until the recent NCLB waivers, the Obama administration had continued to implement NCLB. Because the waivers are so new, we do not have relevant data on their effect yet.  One might point to the fact that, prior to the waivers, the Obama administration had given out competitive grants, but only a few states received them.  So again, it is not clear how national effects could should up in the data. Now I am speculating, but a more plausible explanation for an expanded achievement gap would be the recession and its differential impact based on race.  Given the significantly higher increase in unemployment among African Americans and what we know about the effects of poverty on student achievement, I would put my money on the recession rather than the administration as a cause of the increase (even if that increase is reliable).  

Regardless, Peterson's point is that we need to increase student and teacher accountability, not grant states waivers.  This, of course, is diametrically opposed to Alger's thesis.  These sorts of internal disagreements, which are not new, are part of what made NCLB remarkable.  There are a thousand different competing views about how to fix education and somehow NCLB emerged with a relatively significant level of internal consistency and vision (even if that vision was flawed).  As I have said all summer, however, we haven no reason to expect a reauthorization of any type any time soon.  This schizophrenia only makes it less likely.


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