After a decade of policy change, a new era of accountability in education has barely just begun.
The Kappan, its editors, and its contributors deserve oodles of kudos for their excellent “progress report” on the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. While it might be easy to dismiss the nearly four-year-old law as a big nothingburger — even its congressional chefs play up what it’s not (the No Child Left Behind Act) rather than what it is — Rafael Heller is right that it “has begun to result in real changes on the ground, in many parts of the country.”
Some of the contributors view those changes as largely positive. As Adam Kirk Edgerton writes, states can now focus their accountability systems on progress over time, instead of a single snapshot — which is immensely fairer than the old system. Kevin Close, Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, and Clarin Collins point out that teacher evaluations have gone back to being the domain of states, and, most often, districts, where they rightly belong. And decisions about how to improve chronically low-performing schools will also rest at the local level, encouraging a new sense of ownership and responsibility in communities nationwide — though, as Sara Dahill-Brown explains, that will depend on the local context.
Others are less sanguine. Lance Fusarelli and Jennifer Ayscue are worried about a dramatic retreat from No Child Left Behind’s equity agenda, and Andrew Saultz, Jack Schneider, and Karalyn McGovern argue that ESSA “has failed to fundamentally alter how the federal government interacts with schools.” (No, that’s not a good thing in their estimation!)
But what’s missing from all of these analyses, I think, is a historical perspective on where both NCLB and ESSA fit into the long evolution of the standards and accountability movement. In particular, it’s important to consider the ways in which that movement has evolved over the past decade, especially around standards, assessments, and curriculum — changes that are still new, need time to bear fruit, and deserve more appreciation from federal and state policy-watchers.
Let’s start with a short history lesson.
The challenge of how to hold organizations, especially public institutions, “to account” is age-old, and not often met well. But in the case of primary and secondary education, the notion of holding schools accountable for their results — student learning and other consequential student outcomes — is relatively modern. It grew out of 1980s-era frustration with a more traditional approach: Issuing new rules and regulations, and adding lots more resources, as the way to try to improve our schools.
The notion of holding schools accountable for their results is relatively modern.
In fact, for most of the 20th century, state policy makers tried to do quality control by regulating various inputs and processes. To fend off nepotism in hiring, they instituted elaborate, civil-service-style protocols for certification and licensure of teachers and administrators. To maintain the integrity of the high school diploma, they required students to pass certain courses and earn a specified array of Carnegie units. To make sure dollars were targeted to needy kids, they put in place elaborate accounting rules.
Some of those efforts may have helped, especially in communities sorely afflicted by corruption and cronyism. But they created a whole new set of problems by wrapping schools and educators in miles of red tape. Labor agreements that ran hundreds of pages long made this problem worse. All of this created a culture of compliance, of rule-following and box-checking, rather than a can-do attitude of innovation and continuous improvement.
By the 1980s, some leaders, frustrated at the lack of progress, proposed a new approach. It was what then-Gov. Lamar Alexander called an “old fashioned horse trade”: Policy makers would stop trying to micromanage every aspect of our schools; in return, schools would be held to account for their results.
Around the same time, some groups on the left had also grown frustrated with the regulatory approach and embraced accountability as a tool to force schools to pay attention to low-income kids, children of color, and other disadvantaged youngsters. This gave rise to the left-right coalition, led by civil rights and business groups, that supported testing and accountability in the 1990s and that gave birth to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (Finn, 2008; Hess & Petrilli, 2006).
Rather than focus generically on holding schools accountable for results, these reformers wanted to hold them accountable for equitable results. Closing achievement gaps (and getting low achievers up to minimal standards) became the priority. So what I will call Accountability 1.0 — up and through NCLB — reflected that.
The early attempts at results-based accountability now look rudimentary, even primitive. As modeled by Texas and North Carolina, and later mandated by the 1994 Improving America’s Schools Act, students would be tested regularly (at least once in elementary, middle, and high school), and schools would be categorized based on the percentage of students passing the (low-level) tests. We did not yet have annual testing that would enable us to gauge progress over time, and disaggregation by student subgroup was a Texas-only phenomenon. There certainly wasn’t yet talk of looking at longer-term measures, like college-going or completion, or success in the labor market; the technology didn’t exist to make that more than a pipe dream anyway. Nor were there yet many mandatory interventions in “failing” schools.
Still, the principle had been enshrined in policy: No longer would we view school quality through the prism of inputs and resources alone: the degrees of teachers, the size of classrooms, the number of books in the library. (Or, let’s be honest, the socio-economic composition of the students on campus.) Instead, we would look at outcomes.
No Child Left Behind took this approach to another level, what with its annual assessments, rules for measuring Adequate Yearly Progress, a universal proficiency target of 2014, and a mandatory “cascade of sanctions” for chronically low-performing schools. Its entire design was focused on getting all students to basic levels of literacy and numeracy. Neither the standards in place in most states, nor the assessments, were very challenging. Nothing in the accountability model incentivized the progress of kids who had already mastered low-level standards. But studies would eventually show that the approach largely advanced its mission: The performance of the lowest-performing students rose dramatically from the 1990s into and through the 2000s (Dee & Jacob, 2010). Those students are now achieving two to three grade levels ahead of their earlier counterparts — this is historic, life-changing progress. (The booming 1990s economy, and big spending increases into the 2000s, were at least partly responsible for this good news; Petrilli, 2019.)
There’s little debate about whether achievement rose for many of the kids who had been “left behind.” What’s less clear is why it rose — not just the question of larger economic and social forces, but also whether our schools increased achievement by improving teaching and learning. That, of course, was the intent of results-based accountability: to encourage schools and school systems to do things they weren’t previously doing and wouldn’t otherwise do to get better outcomes for kids, especially poor kids and kids of color. It was based on the premise that, despite the good intentions of people working within the system, the system itself was controlled by small-p politics that often put the needs of adults over the needs of kids, or the needs of affluent families over the needs of the poor. Only by showing some tough love to schools and districts that weren’t closing achievement gaps could these politics be overcome and schools compelled to do things differently.
But what in particular did reformers hope that schools and systems would do that was different and better? Here things get fuzzier. Some reformers — especially those without deep education experience — didn’t much care. Just do “whatever works” (Petrilli, 2006). Others had a vision of evidence-based practices — like scientifically based instruction in early reading — that they wanted schools to embrace. And for still others it was largely about resource allocation. They wanted systems to put more money into high-poverty schools, or move the best teachers to the toughest schools, or push out teachers who didn’t believe that all children can learn.
Some analysts, meanwhile, argued that the rising test scores didn’t reflect real progress but simply game-playing, even cheating. Subjects other than reading and math were squeezed out of the curriculum, they charged, or physical education and recess were curtailed, or non-academic goals de-prioritized.
Given our vast education system, and limited surveys about what was actually happening in our schools, it was hard to know for sure what caused achievement to rise so dramatically for our lowest-performing students in the 1990s and 2000s. But it certainly gave reformers momentum, as well as confidence that progress was possible.
With the Nation’s Report Card showing students making gains, and with George W. Bush still in the White House, support for accountability remained relatively strong for the first half of the 2000s. But as the 2008 presidential campaign heated up, NCLB and related policies started to attract more criticism and derision. The problems of testing and accountability were becoming all too clear. Among them: many schools were spending hours upon hours on low-level test-prep; districts had started using commercially developed “formative” and “diagnostic” tests, in part to gauge how their kids were likely to do on the state test, which led to a perception of over-testing; and the “one snapshot in time” approach to measuring school effectiveness was unfairly punishing those serving lots of disadvantaged students while also discouraging schools from paying attention to everyone but the “bubble kids” performing near the line demarcating “proficiency” in reading and math. Perhaps most significantly, the low-level standards and tests in place in most states were said to be sending the wrong signal to parents, educators, and taxpayers: that vastly more students were on track for future success than really were. It was the illusion of proficiency (Adkins et al., 2007).
With many fits and starts, these concerns eventually paved the way for what I’ll call Accountability 2.0. This recalibration included much more demanding academic standards that were aligned to readiness for college and career, conspicuously in the form of the Common Core; much higher-quality and more rigorous assessments, in the form of Smarter Balanced and PARCC and their successors (Doorey & Polikoff, 2016); and much fairer accountability systems with a greater focus on student progress over time, which was first allowed under NCLB waivers, and then ESSA, plus more transparent school ratings, like five-stars or A to F. It also took most of the “tough” out of accountability’s “tough love” approach, by toning down the expectations for what states have to do when faced with chronically low-performing schools.
The question going forward is whether improving economic conditions will combine with Accountability 2.0 to get student progress back on track.
This transition has taken the better part of a decade; only in 2018-19 did most states have all of these components in place and issue their first school ratings under ESSA. And of course, it was quite a decade for America and its families, with the punishing Great Recession, a slow recovery, and highly erratic politics. Unfortunately, all of this gave us a lost decade of educational progress (Mahnken, 2018), with scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) mostly flat or even down in some grade levels.
But now we have a booming economy — much as in the 1990s — with declining child poverty and rising income for Americans at the bottom of the pay scale. This is very good news for our most fragile families, and it is allowing states to invest more in their schools once again. The question going forward is whether these improving economic conditions will combine with Accountability 2.0 to get student progress back on track.
- Related: Assessing state ESSA plans: Innovation or retreat?
- Related: Is ESSA a retreat from equity?
- Related: Why ESSA has been reform without repair
From policy to practice
To be sure, “accountability” doesn’t directly cause students to learn more. Only new behaviors in the real world, practices engaged in by teachers and kids in particular, can do that. But we accountability hawks do hope that external pressure will nudge schools toward those practices and overcome the inertia of the status quo.
So what kind of changes do we now hope to see in practice?
Here’s how we might put it: By raising standards and making the state assessments tougher, we hope that teachers will raise their expectations for their students. That means pitching their instruction at a higher level, giving assignments that ask children to stretch, and lengthening the school day or year for kids who need more time to reach the higher standards.
We also hope that curriculum developers will create instructional materials aligned to the new, higher standards, materials that would encourage a more challenging and effective type of classroom instruction. This hope has already come to partial fruition, as publishers both old and new release programs that expert analysts at Ed Reports have found to be aligned to the new standards. Now there’s a ton to do to get these materials to teachers and help them work with their colleagues to master them.
We also hope that the more honest assessments will alert parents when their kids are not on track for future success and prod them to do something about it. This part is so far unfulfilled, as almost all parents continue to report that their own kids are doing fine academically (Petrilli, 2017), despite the bleak news coming from the new, tougher tests.
All of this, we hope, will rekindle the progress of our lowest-performing students, but also lead to gains for kids at the middle and the top of the performance distribution (Petrilli, 2019). Thus the shift from “no child left behind” to “every student succeeds.”
The work ahead
That’s a long list of hopes and actions for practitioners to take in response to the new standards, tests, and accountability systems. None of this will be easy or automatic. It will take time and leadership and investment, and we will need to wrestle with difficult challenges and trade-offs. For example, now that we are aiming for much more challenging material, schools are finding that many of their students are achieving well below grade level. How to meet these students where they are, while accelerating their progress toward where they need to be, is extremely difficult work. It’s contentious, too, as it’s not always clear when to “personalize” or “differentiate” instruction, especially for low-achieving students, and when to teach them grade-level material even when it’s a stretch.
This is the nitty-gritty work of improving teaching and learning — and it’s also the best way to address the “equity” concerns raised by Fusarelli and Ayscue and others. It will also require state education agencies to find constructive ways to engage in new areas, such as by helping local districts identify and implement high-quality curriculum. Whether they can build this new capacity is an open question; Patrick McGuinn is right that recent history shouldn’t leave us entirely optimistic.
Still, this is what our kids need most, at this point in time, if we’re going to recapture the progress we had been making in reform’s earlier days. And if we do indeed stay the course on standards and accountability, do the work, and help every student succeed, it will be quite a legacy for ESSA.
Adkins, D., Kingsbury, G.G., Dahlin, M., & Cronin, J. (2007, October). The proficiency illusion. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Dee, T.S. & Jacob, B.A (2010, Summer). Evaluating NCLB. Education Next.
Doorey, N. & Polikoff, M. (2016). Evaluating the content and quality of next generation assessments. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Finn, C.E., Jr. (2008). Troublemaker: A personal history of school reform since Sputnik. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hess, F.M & Petrilli, M.J. (2006). No Child Left Behind: A primer. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.
Mahnken, K. (2018, April 10). NAEP scores remain flat amid signs of a widening gap between highest and lowest performers. The 74.
Petrilli, M.J. (2006, July 25). What works vs. whatever works. Education Week.
Petrilli, M.J. (2017, Winter). Common confusion. Education Next, 17 (1).
Petrilli, M.J. (2019, August 28). The “left behind” children made incredible progress from the late 1990s until the Great Recession. Here are key lessons for ed reform [Blog post]. Flypaper. https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/left-behind-kids-made-incredible-progress-late-1990s-until-great-recession-here
Petrilli, M.J. (2019). Toward a golden age of educational practice. Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Citation: Petrilli, M.J. (2019, Sept. 23) Stay the course on standards and accountability. Phi Delta Kappan Online.