Patchwork of accountability could leave students behind

Policymakers on both sides of the aisle are taking to the airwaves, urging a return to local control of education. Some have even suggested that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) ushered in a “one size fits all” approach to education with little or no flexibility.

In fact, states have had all the authority to set their own academic standards, design their own tests aligned to those standards and to intervene when schools have shown consistent inability to educate children accordingly.

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In a somewhat ironic twist, the Common Core State Standards movement has been gaining steam. While the Obama administration has not directly mandated that states adopt the Common Core standards, it has incentivized them into adopting the standards as a prerequisite to securing coveted Race to the Top dollars.

To date, 19 states and the District of Columbia have received federal Race to the Top grants. The Education Department has also approved waivers for 11 states that allow them to entirely redesign their accountability systems; 26 more states have applied.

What is just now emerging is a confusing patchwork system of accountability. What hasn’t changed is the right for all to know where taxpayer dollars are being invested and to what end. If not the students, who’s benefiting and why?

As 2012 is a presidential election year, reauthorization of NCLB has been shoved to the back burner. In anticipation of likely activity in the next Congress, we need to ask the following questions and push for the right answers:

Are new accountability systems understandable by parents and the public? While NCLB requires schools to make progress in two subjects — reading and math — and get all students to grade level over time, some states are layering in numerous other indicators and devising complicated formulas to determine school ratings. For example, Kentucky is using a combination of assessments in five subjects, program reviews of each school, teacher evaluations and high-school indicators such as end-of-course exams. All may be valid pieces of data, but the combination makes it tough for the public to parse out why a school might be succeeding, or worse — failing.

Do states expect all students to make progress and be equipped with skills to succeed? Critical to students’ success is states setting rigorous goals, especially for ensuring the progress of low-income, minority, special education and Limited English Proficient students who have long been the focus of federal dollars and policy. For example, when NCLB was first signed into law, California officials claimed that its state-designed measure of school accountability, the Academic Performance Index, was as rigorous as the goals of NCLB. In fact, under the API, schools were given literally decades to meet their accountability goals. In this scenario — with little urgency and no pressure — generations of children have lost out.

Are states willing to commit to the promises they make over the long term? Many states have made lofty promises as part of NCLB and, more recently, Race to the Top and waiver applications. Unfortunately, the track record is not encouraging. Many union-oriented state legislatures and local school boards will be tempted to ease pressure on schools, lower expectations and draw out timelines. Lower standards or a resetting of the clock is unacceptable at a time when we should be doing the opposite.

In 2005, all 50 governors committed to adopting a uniform graduation rate in response to states inflating their results by using a less than accurate calculation. But by 2008, only nine states had adopted the new graduation rate and used it for accountability, despite an outcry from the public on the need to cut the dropout rate. Because of regulations I put in place nearly four years ago, all states will finally be required to meet these standards this year.

As head of the U.S. Chamber’s Forum for Policy Innovation, I talk to business leaders every day. It’s like listening to a broken record. One message is consistent: Our students are simply not prepared for what awaits them. And as a country, we can’t afford for them to not be prepared. Our long-term economic success and national security depend on our ability to educate America’s students today.

Still, I haven’t lost all hope: I believe a handful of states that are truly committed to do the right thing — Indiana, Louisiana and Tennessee among them — are determined to prove the skeptics among us wrong.

I hope our policymakers, however well-intentioned, will not walk away from the commitment to educate all students, regardless of their zip codes. But we must remain vigilant.

Spellings served as secretary of Education from 2005-2009 under former President George W. Bush.