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Beyond No Child Left Behind

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Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently called for a speedy re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), more commonly known as No Child Left Behind. This has brought into focus once again the challenges of effectively teaching students and closing the achievement gap. No Child Left Behind was passed in an effort to hold schools more accountable, and required all public schools to measure student progress through standardized tests. But after eight years in practice, it has been widely criticized for encouraging a practice of “teaching to the test” and for neglecting subjects other than math and reading, such as history, art, exercise, health care, and the social skills that prepare students to succeed at life.

Schools don’t exist on a level playing field
EPI, through the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA) campaign, has been a leader in identifying policies that could address flaws in the current system while still holding schools and teachers accountable. A cornerstone of the BBA campaign is that it takes more than a school to educate a student and education policies must strive to overcome the link between socioeconomic status and education.

Some of those challenges are addressed in the October 13 Policy Memorandum, The Prospects for No Child Left Behind, by EPI research associate Richard Rothstein. While Rothstein highlights many of the problems with No Child Left Behind, he suggests that Duncan’s stated intention to re-authorize it might not be as troubling as it sounds. Rothstein notes that Duncan has laid down a set of principles for reform that “represent a radical departure from (the current law),” while vowing “not to replicate the worst corruptions of No Child Left Behind.”

Giving more authority to the states
Some of those corruptions include states “dumbing down” their tests (in order to achieve more passing grades) and abandoning balanced curriculums (in order to spend more time on basic math and reading). Rothstein argues that because schools do not start out on a level playing field, federal law should not hold them all to the same standards. He calls for the federal government to back away from micro-managing school quality, in favor of states developing new, more-qualitative evaluation systems that include on-site visits. Although qualitative evaluation systems would be more expensive than the machine-scored standardized tests, Rothstein notes the cost would still be relatively modest, representing less than one-sixth of one percent of total government spending on schools.

Charter schools perform no better than traditional schools
The reliance on standardized tests to measure school success has also become a subject of debate in a new set of “Race to the Top” guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education that outline how schools can receive federal funds. Not only do the guidelines promote charter schools, but they also give high priority to evaluating teachers based on standardized test results of their students.

EPI economist Joydeep Roy and research associate Sean Corcoran of New York University, expressed “serious reservations” with both priorities. In a written response to Arne Duncan, they stressed that scores on multiple choice tests represent only a fraction of educational goals and achievements, and argue that it can be hard to isolate an individual teacher’s contribution to a test result. With regards to charter schools, Roy and Corcoran cite extensive evidence that charter schools generally perform no better than traditional schools, and sometimes lag other public schools. The problem with calling for an increased supply of “high-quality” charter schools, the authors note, is that it is not that easy to build a quality school: if it were, “one could simply require states to increase the supply of ‘high-quality’ traditional schools.”

More research and discussion on teacher pay
At the core of many of these issues is the way teachers are paid. Traditionally, they have been paid through a single-tier system that bases salary on seniority and level of education, but more and more schools across the country are redesigning compensation structures in an effort to improve student achievement. EPI’s new book, Redesigning Teacher Pay, offers an analysis of some of these experiments as well as a proposal for a new four-tiered pay-and-career structure, which is uniquely aimed at attracting quality teachers and supporting them in their ongoing career development.

Authors Susan Moore Johnson and John Papay, both of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, recently shared their research during a discussion at EPI about the benefits and potential downsides of abandoning the existing teacher pay structure. Redesigning Teacher Pay is the second in a series of books EPI is publishing on the topic of alternative systems for teacher compensation. The first volume, Teachers, Performance Pay, and Accountability, published earlier this year, outlined many of the problems with tying pay to performance, such as a focus on quotas over quality.

Informing stakeholders in education
In addition to his research and writings, EPI research associate Richard Rothstein has been an active participant in discussions around the country concerning school quality, accountability, and teacher compensation. Over the summer Rothstein made the case for BBA’s policies in presentations to the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Conference of State Legislatures. More recently, Rothstein addressed a conference sponsored by the California Credentialing Commission and Policy Analysis for California Education on the topic of “What Districts and Schools Can Do to Help Get Children Ready to Learn.”