What Next-Gen Accountability Can Learn From No Child Left Behind

As the Senate prepared to vote on the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) back in 2001, Sen. Ted Kennedy, the iconic Massachusetts Democrat, told the assembled chamber, “This is a defining issue about the future of our Nation and about the future of democracy, the future of liberty, and the future of the United States in leading the free world.” President George W. Bush and a long list of Republican and Democratic luminaries offered similarly enthusiastic endorsements.

Yet, 20 years on, many would prefer to forget that NCLB and the era of high-stakes testing it brought about ever happened, as NCLB slowly morphed into a bumper sticker for federal overreach and overtesting. It would be easy now just to move on to the next generation of assessments and retooled accountability systems and leave NCLB in the rearview mirror. But that impulse is, I fear, why education improvement tends to devolve into us making the same mistakes over and over.

On that score, I’ve been taken with a recent essay by University of Oklahoma professor Deven Carlson on what policymakers should learn from the NCLB experience. (Full disclosure: He penned it for my AEI Education series on the future of educational accountability.) A few of his takeaways seemed well worth sharing — particularly as policymakers and leaders consider implementing new accountability measures to help schooling recover from the pandemic’s effects.

For starters, Carlson argues that NCLB ran into trouble because lawmakers baked unrealistic expectations into the law itself. As he puts it, “Setting a goal of universal reading and math proficiency by 2014 effectively ensured we would end up judging accountability, and NCLB more broadly, a failure.” If they had left 100 percent proficiency as an aspiration rather than a mandated accountability target, he writes, “it’s conceivable that NCLB could have survived politicians’ aspirational rhetoric and impossible promises.”

I’m reminded of what Checker Finn and I wrote regarding NCLB’s 100 percent mandate back in 2007: “Noble, yes, but also naive, misleading, and in some respects dysfunctional. NCLB is, in fact, a civil rights manifesto masquerading as an education accountability system. Its grand ambition provided a shaky basis for policymaking, rather as if Congress asserted in the name of energy reform that America will no longer need to import oil after 2014.”

Carlson’s takeaway from this is a useful one: Set realistic, achievable goals. That might leave politicians with less room for bombast, Carlson observes, but the frustrating truth is that “reality doesn’t always fit into nice, neat sound bites.”

Carlson also indicts NCLB’s inflexible, Washington-centric approach to accountability. He observes, “Every consequential aspect of NCLB’s accountability system — testing requirements, AYP’s definition, the series of sanctions — was designed in DC and dictated to the states, which were given no meaningful freedom to adapt the system to their realities.” In states where it might make more sense to employ a different approach to judging schools or designing interventions, leaders had little freedom to do so.

Carlson argues that future accountability efforts should be built upon “increased state control of school accountability systems.” He suggests the record makes the case for state systems in which metrics like test scores and graduation rates are not used in isolation but serve to trigger more in-depth performance audits. As Carlson puts it, “High-level numbers can tell you only so much, and it often takes setting foot inside a school to get a sense of what’s going well and what isn’t and to make productive recommendations about how the school might go about any improvement process.”

At the same time, Carlson notes the importance of NCLB shifting the focus of measurement from inputs to outcomes — a shift that he urges policymakers to retain. In the decades that followed the 1965 passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, he writes, “Expenditures were about the only aspect of education that were consistently measured and thus drove policy discussions.” That didn’t really change in any meaningful way until NCLB. While Carlson says this change has brought its own challenges, he argues that it has been broadly positive: “Instead of focusing exclusively on inputs — using dollars as a proxy for quality — we are now much more likely to start policy discussions by asking how well schools are serving students.”

Too often in education, we race from one frustrating episode to the next — dismissing talk of where we’ve been with the impatient insistence that we’ve learned our lesson, or that “this is different,” or that this is a “new data-driven approach.” Well, as we ponder what comes next for accountability and assessment, we’d benefit from checking the rearview mirror more attentively and more often. I think Carlson’s take can help us do just that.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.