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Keeping Education Accountable

By Paul E. Peterson

In his State of the Union address, President Bush has asked Congress to extend No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal education law. Congress should do so, but only if it fixes some significant glitches in the law.

Unfortunately, the needed repairs are not the ones the new Democratic majority on Capitol Hill has been proposing. For them, the main problem is a lack of federal dollars.

But money is not what schools need from the federal government. Over the past 40 years, we as a nation have increased per pupil spending by two and one half times—in real dollar terms. Yet student performance has hardly budged over that period of time. Even our best students—the top tenth—do not perform any better today than their parents and grandparents did forty-odd years ago. Meanwhile, high school graduation rates are lower today than they were in 1990.

To really address the country’s educational woes, other fixes to NCLB are vastly more important. First, the federal law now holds schools accountable, rather than students or teachers. But how can a school be held accountable, when it is only an “it?” What do you do when an “it” does something bad? “It” can’t be warned, punished, or counseled. While “it” can be shut down, closing a school is a draconian solution that can’t be employed except in the most extreme of circumstances.

No reform could have a bigger pay-off at lower cost than holding students accountable for their own achievement. In Massachusetts, high school students must now pass a fairly demanding exam if they are to graduate. Since that regulation came into effect, student performance has shot upward, so that today, Massachusetts leads the nation in the latest measures of school quality.

Other evidence points in the same direction. According to international studies of student performance in math and science in many industrialized countries, students perform better when they must take comprehensive graduation examinations that are administered by an external examining board. In the United States, we have Advanced Placement (AP) exams, but only 10 percent of all those in an age cohort pass that exam.

Just as students need to be held accountable, so too do teachers. Study after study shows that teachers are crucial to student performance, vastly more important than any other single factor. So if students do particularly well, teachers should be rewarded with higher pay. And, if a particular teacher consistently performs poorly—students regularly lose ground in his or her class—that teacher should be asked to find work elsewhere.

If teachers are to be held accountable, the measuring stick used for evaluating them must be much better than the one NCLB now employs. Currently, students are expected to reach a state-determined level of proficiency at a school in order for it to avoid being identified as a “failing” school, or, in bureaucratic parlance, “in need of improvement.” Reaching a state-determined level is usually easy for those students that come from supportive family backgrounds but can be challenging for those coming from disadvantaged ones. As a result, schools are being judged more on the basis of the demographics of the students than on their educational quality.

The problem can easily be rectified simply by tracking the academic progress of individual students from one year to the next, something that is now being done under the accountability system Jeb Bush set up in Florida. NCLB needs to ask all states to set up a similar system, and then apply it to schools and teachers alike.

But, you might say, no teacher should be held accountable just because students did not make expected gains in any particular year. That’s a fair point, but one that can easily be addressed by holding teachers accountable for their performance over the course of two or three years. If every group of students taught by a particular teacher does badly for a span of three years, then something needs to be changed.

But won’t teachers cheat, or teach to the test? Most won’t cheat, and the few that might can be held in check by appropriate monitoring systems. And if a test is designed well, why shouldn’t teachers try to provide students with the background necessary to pass it?

Finally, NCLB needs to give families a genuine choice of school—public or private, urban or suburban—if their child’s current school fails to measure up under the new accountability system. Currently, NCLB gives families only the choice of an alternative public school within the same school district, a choice so meaningless it has been exercised by less than one percent of all eligible parents.

So the new NCLB should include student and teacher accountability, coupled with meaningful parental choice. But will it be? Unfortunately, politics is likely to intervene. Students will complain about high school examinations, and too many parents will back them up. Teachers will complain about accountability, and their unions will back them up. Suburbanites will oppose giving minorities access to their schools, and their members in Congress will back them up. The public school establishment will fight competition from the private sector, and politicians won’t be able to resist the pressure.

Unfortunately, politics will triumph over policy once again, a reality that has doomed our schools to stagnancy for more than a generation.

Professor Paul E. Peterson is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government.

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