NCLB: Under the Bus, But Not a Total Loss

Last week I wrote about the tortured history of testing and school accountability in America in a defense for Common Standards and Better Tests. Today AEI released a more extensive history with real data analysis, “NCLB sanctions: Tests taken, lessons learned.”

As noted last week, I supported NCLB’s bipartisan high expectations and efforts to address chronic failure. An iterative approach could have kept the commitment to equity and adjusted the intervention steps, but instead NCLB has grown stale and has been thrown under the bus by critics on the left and the right. State waivers are slowly dismantling the giant bill piece by piece, a slow reversion to soft state based systems of accountability.

Despite falling well short of lofty goals, authors Thomas Ahn, Kentucky, and Jacob Vigdor, Duke, argue that “NCLB did have positive impacts on schools simply by introducing consequences for bad performance, and additionally by spurring needed leadership change at some of the nation’s most troubled schools.”

The authors found that “School accountability systems in general, and NCLB in particular, had some beneficial systemic effect.” Also schools forced to undergo restructuring “posted significant improvements in both reading and math scores, suggesting that leadership change is an essential component of reform in persistently low-performing schools.”  It’s also clear that some NCLB components worked, others didn’t.

The report contemplates “accountability 2.0” based on lessons learned:

  • Focus on test-score gains, not levels.

  • Incentivize schools, not teachers.

  • Intervene with,rather than summarily fire,underperforming teachers.

  • Move local autonomy even further.

An AEI meeting tomorrow, moderated by Education Week’s Ginny Edwards, will explore the report with the authors and experts including Nina Rees (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools) and Celia Sims (New America Foundation).

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Paul Smith

I will admit upfront that I'm not a fan of NCLB, but this is a position that has evolved over time as I've come to understand the broad impact it's had. Honestly, I've done a complete flip-flop. Like most in the middle of the ed policy debate, there are some things about NCLB I think are good, but the more I learn, the more I come to believe that the unintended consequences have outweighed the few benefits to be found. To name a few:
- Lame-O curriculum (Language Arts & Math Only)
- Elimination of recess periods
- Practice Tests
- Declining support for gifted students
- Teacher attrition
I would very much like to hear responses to these concerns from the report authors. I've asked this question in the past and while folks generally agree that NCLB is not perfect, I've yet to hear anything that gives me hope for change. Unless we find a way to measure a school or teacher's success/failure on a much broader set of criteria, then we will carry on with myopic focus on what's being measured.
What if in the calculus of a school's API score we included equal weight for things like:
- Teacher to student ratio
- Dedicated science lab
- After-school maker program
- Ratio of students to Fine Arts teachers
- Project Based Learning
- 1:1 laptop/mobile programs
- Recess time
- 20% time
- Stock Market School (finance & banking)
- Startup School (entrepreneurship)
- Mechanical Engineering program
- etc.
Maybe this is far-fetched, but I note with interest that more affluent neighborhood schools tend to have more of these types of programs. This is particularly true for the extremely well off:


Tom Vander Ark

Thanks Paul. Fair to say that there was a narrowing of curriculum in many places where there should have been an expansion to an 7 or 8 hour day instead. It also signals weak leadership not smart enough to integrate expectations across a rich sequence of learning experiences. It also requires a focus on powerful learning experiences leading to quality work products not test scores--if you pay attention to the former, it takes care of the later.

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