Category Archives: No Child Left Behind

With the New ESSA, We’re Still Plugged into the Matrix


A great education leader who lives in Houston once said to me: “as long you’re worrying about state test scores, you’re still plugged into the matrix.”

His point: so long as public schools are held accountable via government tests, the incentives for educators will be about doing well on those tests.

If you believe performance on these tests is a useful measure of learning, then staying plugged into the matrix might be a good thing.

If you feel that parents, schools, universities, and employers are best suited to develop measures of learning, then you probably want to get out of the matrix and align incentives around different outcome measures.

In the long run, I think it’s probably a good idea to leave the matrix, so long as leaving the matrix is accompanied with a shift towards relinquishment, whereby educators can run schools and families can choose from these schools.

However, as long as we’re going to stay in the matrix, I think the two most important things are ensuring that the matrix is:

1) heavily weighted towards academic growth (rather than absolute scores) and;

2) that it identifies and acts on bottom performing schools and subgroups (where research indicates accountability helps the most).

Given that much discretion will be left to the states, time will tell if this matrix is a better than the previous matrix.

But either way, have no doubt about it: we’re still plugged into the matrix.

The Scariest Lesson of….

Vox’s Libby Nelson just posted a piece entitled The scariest lesson of No Child Left Behind.

I find Libby’s national policy writing to be well done. I thought her piece on the allegiance between Republicans and unions was spot on.

However, I thought this NCLB piece fell short in that it correctly identified a problem (most NCLB turnaround efforts didn’t really work), while not fully covering the research behind potential solutions.

When it comes to highlighting whole school reform efforts that work, Libby calls out the following:

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As Libby notes, not one of these models has actually been proven to work at scale across grade levels. Looking at these models alone paints a grim picture. Hence the “scariest lesson” title of her original piece.

Libby ends her piece with this:

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I don’t think this is true.

We have rigorous evidence on what type of whole school reforms works for poor and minority students: charter schools, particularly those that adopt the No Excuses model.

CREDO studied charter school performance across 41 cities in 22 states. This is an extremely large sample size that exceeds the research on the aforementioned four reform models.

Here’s what the study found:

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Urban charters are delivering strong results: a .08 effect size in math and a .06 in reading. Moreover, these effects take place over a three year period, so the cumulative effect on students is likely larger over the course of their full education.

Of course, these results are the aggregate effects of 41 markets, some of which are seeing incredible result (.2-.3 effect size), while others are seeing poor results (negative effects on student learning).

And, of course, these market results are the aggregate effects of individual schools, some of which are seeing incredible results (very often No Excuses or some version of the model), while others are seeing poor results.

Which leads to the final point: the entire project of looking to whole school reform as an overall reform strategy is missing the forest for the trees.

The forest is governance: letting great educators open new schools and holding them accountable.

Understanding why any individual school is great is a worthy endeavor, but it is a limited endeavor.

To put it another way: evaluating the research of what is effective within a poorly constructed system will not tell you that it is the system itself that needs to be changed.

It would be akin to trying to understand the American economy by looking at the practices of great corporations. Useful, for sure, but it won’t tell you why the system itself delivers constantly strong performance.

Research being done by CREDO and others is demonstrating that it is the system itself that is broken, and that by fixing governance we can empower educators to achieve great results.

What’s the scariest lesson of No Child Left Behind?

The scariest lesson is that the data from No Child Left Behind is increasingly providing us with  answers on how to turnaround failing school systems and yet we continue to ignore this data.

The lesson that we have very little idea what works is a scary thought, it’s just not true.

A Better NCLB

Yesterday, Mike Petrilli had a good post on how the federal government is better suited to ensure transparency in data rather than dictate how states hold failing schools accountable.

I agree with Mike’s two main points:

(1) The federal government doesn’t really know what it takes to turnaround failing schools, so it shouldn’t be prescriptive.

(2) The federal government does know how to support charter school growth, and it should expand this program.

Some related thoughts, which, taken together, form a Relinquishment agenda for NCLB.

Keep the Flashlight on the Bottom 5%

I do think that the feds should require that each state identify its bottom 5% of schools. Interventions like Recovery School Districts are often predicated and justified by the state being clear about which schools are dramatically failing children. Given that states sometimes use confusing performance labels (stars, tiers, etc.), I think clearly identifying the bottom 5% is a reasonable requirement that promotes transparency.

States Should Do Something for Children Trapped in Failing Schools 

Just because we don’t have clear evidence in what works in turnarounds, it doesn’t mean states should just throw their hands up when it comes to students trapped in failing schools. The feds should also require that states submit a plan that outlines a strategy for better serving students in the bottom 5% schools. At the very least, this will force a public debate on the issue; moreover, it will give reform minded state superintendents some cover for taking action. Like Mike, I view RSDs and charter expansion as promising strategies, but hopefully there’s more innovation to be had. To be clear, I don’t think the strategy even needs to be a turnaround strategy; you could simply give a voucher to every kid in a failing schools. I’m just saying states should submit a plan to the feds that puts forth a strategy to get students out of these terrible situations.

The Charter School Program Should be Quadrupled 

This is a rare moment in time when both parties share some agreement on a major policy issue (charter schools). This moment should be seized to dramatically increase one of the few educational programs the feds fund that has actually been shown to increase achievement for African-American students. To ensure the money is well utilized, the feds could stipulate that states can only receive this money if they have clear accountability policies for closing charter schools that persistently fail children. I work with a lot of states that may see a decrease in charter growth due to expiring federal grants. This is a ripe time to make sure this doesn’t occur.

Investing in Innovation: Sustain Federal Investment, Enable State Investment

There’s some rumblings that Republicans want to strip i3 and other competitive grant programs. I find it ironic that of all the waste in federal education spending, Republicans might cut some of the few programs that are actually tied to funding non-governmental organizations that work. If Republicans are worried about the feds having too heavy of a hand, they could push a lot of this money down to states (while keeping evidence requirements in place). Big picture, we spend a ton of public money on education, and very little of it funds innovative work. So I’d keep the federal program, kickstart state programs, and take whatever funds you need from Title II, which remains a slush fund for mediocre PD vendors. Investing in Innovation is another place where federal support can give cover and resources to bold state supes.