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No Child Left Behind is dead. But have states learned from it?

PHOTO: Paul Morse/White House
President George W. Bush signs into law the No Child Left Behind Act on Jan. 8, 2002 at Hamilton High School in Hamilton, Ohio.

When the Every Student Succeeds Act won bipartisan support from a famously polarized Congress in 2015, it was less a sign of the two parties’ ability to work together than an indictment of what they were replacing: No Child Left Behind.

NCLB had grown increasingly unpopular, blamed for setting impossible-to-reach goals, inciting test-prep frenzy, and unfairly targeting high-poverty schools. (The law has defenders, too, who point to evidence that it increased student achievement in math and provided important new breakdowns of performance data by race.)

ESSA gave states a chance to start fresh. To date, 16 states and Washington, DC have submitted their plans to implement the law; one plan, Delaware’s, has been approved by the Department of Education.

With some plans in hand, it’s worth asking: Are states really changing course? Are they learning from what many viewed as the problematic aspects of the law ESSA replaced?

Here are some of the sharpest criticisms levied at No Child Left Behind — and what we know about whether states are now planning to go in a different direction.

Criticism #1: States put too much focus on testing.

No Child Left Behind became closely associated with high-stakes testing. ESSA continues to require annual testing in grades three through eight, but allows states to use metrics other than test scores in their plans for evaluating schools.

Indeed, every state that has submitted a plan so far has added — or plans to add — at least one additional measure. The most popular has been chronic absenteeism.

“States are broadening their accountability systems beyond reading and math,” according to a review of state plans by Bellwether Education Partners, an education consulting firm generally aligned with the education reform movement. “Most states added science and a more accurate measure of student attendance, not to mention indicators measuring physical education, art, and school climate.”

But, particularly in elementary and middle school, it remains true that test scores will be the major driver of which schools are deemed low-performing.

That’s partially because the law requires “much greater” weight to be placed on test scores — and on graduation rates for high schools — than on non-academic measures like absenteeism or student engagement.

Still, states have interpreted that in different ways. Delaware’s system will base 70 percent of its ratings for elementary and middle schools on state tests. In Louisiana, 75 percent of scores for elementary schools will be determined by state math and English tests and 25 percent will come from science and social studies exams. (Eventually, Louisiana plans to add “access to a well-rounded curriculum” as a measure, though it will only account for 5 percent.)

Other states are making greater efforts to scale back testing. In Maryland, according to a draft plan, only 45 percent of elementary-school scores will be based on state tests though it remains to be seen whether the feds will approve this approach.  

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar

Criticism #2: Schools serving lots of poor students were unfairly penalized.

No Child Left Behind used student proficiency to measure schools — and one all-but-inevitable consequence is that school ratings are tightly associated with poverty.

A number of researchers have argued that this approach unfairly penalizes schools for the students they serve and deters teachers from working in those schools. Certain civil rights groups, though, say this method is important in order to maintain high standards and identify schools that need the most help.

Under ESSA, this positive correlation is likely to remain. High-poverty schools will probably still be far more likely to be identified as low-performing, since states, as required by the statute, will continue to use proficiency or overall performance.

Most states also plan to use measures of student growth, which are less tightly associated with poverty. But even when it comes to growth, a number of states are using hybrid approaches that don’t break the link between performance and poverty. Other common indicators, like chronic absenteeism and high school graduation rates, are also tightly related to student income.

A review by the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, found that only a handful of states would likely be fair to high-poverty schools. Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, came to a similar conclusion.

“ESSA perpetuates long-standing measurement problems that were institutionalized under No Child Left Behind,” Di Carlo wrote. “The ongoing failure to distinguish between student and school performance continue to dominate accountability policy to this day.”

Criticism #3: Schools were pushed to focus on kids near the proficiency bar and ignore others.

Another problem many identified under No Child Left Behind was that proficiency created an all-or-nothing definition of academic performance — that is, a school was penalized if a student fell short of the proficiency bar by a single question, yet didn’t get extra credit for those who scored far above proficiency. In other words, schools had less incentive to help kids far above and far below proficiency.

A number of states seem to have taken this to heart. The Fordham Institute report gave eight out of 16 states a strong rating in whether there are incentives to “focus on all students.”

The percentage of school ratings that are based on measures seen as likely to encourage a focus on all students, based on states’ ESSA plans. (Fordham Institute)

To do that, some state plans emphasize student growth or judge schools based on average overall test scores. Several states plan to use those measures for a majority of their elementary and middle school ratings. 

Still, proficiency continues to play a major role in many state plans. Moreover, the use of chronic absenteeism risks replicating the problem: schools will have an incentive to focus on kids just short of the bar to be deemed chronically absent (often 15 days out of school).

That said, there remains significant debate about whether this downside actually exists. Although older research on accountability systems in Chicago and Texas showed that teachers focused more on “bubble kids” — that is, those near proficiency — a study of several states during the NCLB era did not find evidence of this.

Criticism #4: States didn’t do a good job helping low-performing schools improve.

The mission of NCLB — and now ESSA — was to identify schools that need help, incentivize them to improve, and if that doesn’t work, require states to intervene. Perhaps the most troubling legacy of No Child Left Behind, as well as the Obama-era school turnaround program, is what we didn’t learn: what interventions truly improve a struggling school.

States have tried a variety of strategies — including improving support for teachers, adding social services, closure, and conversion to charters — and have found mixed success. (There is some evidence that dismissal of a critical mass of teachers and the principal, combined with hiring flexibility and additional resources, is a promising approach.)

Perhaps because the research is so inconclusive — as well as due to political considerations — many states have been vague about how they plan to intervene in schools in the future.

“Instead of taking the opportunity to design their own school improvement strategies, the state produced plans that are mostly vague and non-specific on how they will support low-performing schools,” according to the review by Bellwether.

One exception, the report notes, is New Mexico, which created a menu of specific options — including closure, charter takeover, or significant restructuring — for schools that are persistent low-performing. This is similar to the federal School Improvement Grant program, which produced inconsistent results.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.