“Imagine saying we should shut down a hospital and fire its staff because not all of its patients became healthy—but never demanding that the patients also look out for themselves by eating properly, exercising, and laying off cigarettes.” Teacher union leader Al Shanker’s characterization of American education policy still rings true today. The rash of reforms over the past two decades, from initiatives during the Clinton administration to Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act to Obama’s Race to the Top program, have sought to improve test scores by focusing almost entirely on school accountability with little or no attempt to hold students to a higher standard. Demanding better performance from schools and teachers is a good start, but part of the answer to America’s mediocre educational performance lies in asking more of students.
There is substantial room for our students to improve. Among developed countries, the United States ranks 17 in high school reading proficiency and 32 in math proficiency. The situation is particularly dire for racial minorities. Only 15 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of African Americans are proficient in these subjects, compared to a little less than half of whites.
NCLB set out to improve these outcomes by mandating that all public school students be proficient in math and reading by 2014 and imposing sanctions against schools that failed to make “adequate yearly progress” toward this goal. The law appears to have had some success in raising math scores, but has had little or no impact on reading proficiency, and has made minimal headway in closing racial achievement gaps.
One problem with NCLB is that it focuses solely on school accountability, which is only part of the problem. Many parents set high academic standards for their children and some students have the foresight to apply themselves for the sake of their futures. But the school system itself gives students little immediate incentive to study harder. Comprehensive school reform would supplement school accountability with student accountability, mandating remedial instruction for underperforming students and perhaps rewarding those who excel.
The most obvious way to motivate students is by predicating grade promotion and graduation on test performance. While a few states have implemented minimum-competency tests that students must pass before graduating, these tend to affect only a few students at the bottom of the score distribution. Research shows that in European and Asian countries in which graduation from secondary school is contingent upon curriculum-based exit exams like France’s Baccalaureate, students outperform their American counterparts by a grade level or more in some subjects.
Another possibility would be to institute student accountability in terms of educational inputs. One of the more successful aspects of NCLB is a program called Supplemental Education Services which provides vouchers for private after-school tutoring to low-income families whose children attend failing schools. The program seems to have boosted test scores, particularly among minority students in inner cities. But participation rates are woefully low—less than 5 percent among eligible high school students—at least partly because families simply fail to use the vouchers. A mandatory after-school remedial program like SES could help underperforming students raise their scores while giving them an incentive to do so.
Schools can also motivate students with positive reinforcement by paying them for performance. In a 2010 study that used randomized trials in over 250 urban schools, Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer, Jr. found that financial incentives for educational inputs (e.g. paying students to read books) can significantly increase achievement. In fact, relative to education reforms of the past few decades, financial incentives “produce similar gains in achievement at lower costs.”
Another problem with NCLB is that its school accountability standards are relatively weak. According to the law, underperforming schools only face serious consequences after five years of failing to meet average yearly progress requirements and in many cases little or no action is taken even then. This is due in large part to the powerful influence of teacher unions, who are usually able to block attempts at school and teacher accountability including school choice, merit pay, and tenure reform.
Unlike these ideas, student accountability does not threaten the jobs or wages of teachers. While exit exams and mandatory tutoring might be a drag (at least in the short run) for the underperforming students who would have to work harder, very few of them are old enough to vote and whatever parental opposition these measures might attract would be far less intense than an American Federation of Teachers’ campaign against private school vouchers. Given the political difficulty of mandating higher standards for schools and teachers, student accountability might be the most realistic—and perhaps the most effective—way of improving educational outcomes.
Peyton R. Miller ’12 is a government concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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