President Obama’s Not-So-Secret School Accountability Plan

By 09/03/2013

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Way back in March of 2010, President Obama released his blueprint for reauthorizing the education law that’s commonly known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In it, he called for changing the way schools are identified for improvement from the criteria-referenced system that NCLB uses, where states set an objective “proficiency” benchmark and hold accountable all schools that fail to meet it, to a norm-referenced system that prioritizes improvement efforts focused on a set percentage of schools that are the lowest performing. Once you understand this basic lens through which the Obama administration* sees the world, all of its major education initiatives—such as Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and NCLB waivers—make a lot more sense.

Three years later, we’re still operating as if the blueprint never happened, as if three years of policymaking hasn’t happened. The latest example comes from the Campaign for High School Equity, which found that (surprise!) the Obama administration is allowing states to identify fewer schools for improvement than they had under NCLB. The Associated Press breathlessly reported the finding that, “Millions of at-risk students could fall through the cracks as the Education Department gives states permission to ignore parts of No Child Left Behind.” But this wasn’t some unintended consequence of NCLB waivers; it is the administration’s theory of action.

The Obama administration hasn’t always been fully forthright about this, especially Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He has boasted that state waiver requests “capture” tens of thousands more students by using lower thresholds for the number of students who count toward accountability. For example, if a state previously had a threshold of 40 students, a school with only 39 African-American students would not have been accountable for African-American students. Under the waiver initiative, many states have dropped those thresholds down to 20 or 30 students, meaning more poor and minority students “count” toward a school’s rating. While Duncan is technically right that more schools are held accountable for more subgroups of students, he is also letting more schools avoid NCLB’s consequences. He can’t have it both ways.

The administration is betting on states to focus their efforts on a small, finite number of low-performing schools. Those schools are now subject to strong improvement efforts, backed by billions of dollars in federal support. Reasonable people can disagree about whether that was a good bet: Will states follow up on their promises, and will their schools actually be able to improve? It’s also fair to ask whether the percentages Obama set (in the NCLB waivers, it’s 5 percent of the lowest performing schools and another 10 percent of schools with large achievement gaps) are the right ones.

Like it or not, the world of education accountability is headed in a normative direction—42 states, the District of Columbia, and eight large school districts in California are all making normative decisions now—and this should change how we look at all sorts of issues. For example, if and when states implement new assessments aligned to the Common Core, it won’t really matter for accountability purposes if proficiency rates fall. Accountability is now mostly tied to how schools compare to each other, not some pre-determined “proficiency” bar. There is no secret agenda, and we need to start thinking about how it affects all of our education policies.

-Chad Aldeman

*Disclosure: I worked at the Department of Education from April of 2011 through August of 2012.

This blog entry first appeared on The Quick and the Ed.

Comment on this article
  • H. David says:

    Respectfully, I believe their Theory of Action reflects what research tells us about quality teaching and its impact on student achievement. The administration’s NCLB waivers have shifted, not eliminated, the accountability (resources, transparency & consequence) to teachers with requirements designed to create “systems” which will provide the near real-time feedback all teachers need to make intelligent and effective instructional choices for their students. It is my understanding that these new systems that measure annual student growth will also use that data to determine & identify the “trajectory” and concomitant timeframe required for a student, class of students, school and/or district to reach a “criteria-referenced” level of academic performance i.e. proficient, goal or advanced. These objective student achievement milestones, when combined with other non-exam related measures, will serve to ensure all our students ultimately graduate “college and/or career ready”. K12 education has always been at once the most and the least accountable system I know of. That clearly hasn’t worked. The administration is betting that like Dorothy’s Kansas, the “solution” to the problem has been right here all along albeit it will take a lot more than an epiphany and a pair of Ruby slippers to finally find our way back “home”. I think this administration believes, as do I, that it is going to take ensuring that the ultimate welfare of each adult in the system is inexorably and inextricably linked to that of the children they teach. And why not, it’s been the other way around for over 100 years.

  • haknbud says:

    A significant aspect of the entire debate seems to be missing, the aspect of the federal government’s involvement in any capacity with education. Oversight of education was a power given expressly to the states and therefore, the federal government should be making no policies related to education and accountability for the quality of education should remain with local schools and school boards who are elected by the parents of the students they teach. Parents who make up local communities should decide what level and quality of education their children should receive. The cost of education could be significantly reduced and more of the revenue could be used directly for students if their was not such a big bureaucracy beyond that of the local school board. Teachers, the educated professionals who were hired to teach, should make decisions about standards, curriculum, and methodology. If they produce poor results in the form of under-educated students, then the principle or school board should have the authority to fire them just like any other profession. The right and responsibility to oversee a child’s education needs to be returned to parents.

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