Wednesday, July 30, 2008

While endless discussions of No Child Left Behind play out in Congress, the two presidential candidates clearly recognize the American public endorses the basic idea of holding schools accountable for performance. That is why both Barack Obama and John McCain support the general construct of the program, while holding out the option of revising unspecified aspects of it.

In the meantime, don’t expect to see either party advance substantive proposals on improving educational accountability.

Against this backdrop of vague rhetoric and inaction, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has joined with several states to bring clarity by developing better ways to hold schools accountable.

That this needed to be done is one thing just about everyone outside of Washington, D.C., agrees upon. Governors and state education officials have not been exactly shy about complaining about No Child Left Behind. To her credit, Mrs. Spellings has listened, parsing through what she has been told and doing the hard work with state education chiefs to come up with responses.

The result is a new pilot program announced July 1 to further advance education accountability policy by giving six states - Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Maryland and Ohio - greater flexibility in advancing this policy.

The hunger for change can be seen in the fact that more than one-third of the states applied to join the pilot, despite a tight three-week deadline to submit proposals. Some of these were red states, some were blue. They came from all regions, and from both ends of the education quality spectrum.

The applicant states were uniform, however, in one thing - a conviction that accountability is not simply a punitive exercise, but rather a compact for performance that involves shared responsibility for instructional capacity, effective leadership and serious attention to the sources of deficiencies. By sponsoring this pilot, called Differentiated Accountability, the Education Department is encouraging states to share the best of their thinking about improvement and intervention strategies.

More than anything, the Differentiated Accountability pilot will offer a priceless opportunity to learn how the first wave of pilot programs was implemented and how these early efforts impacted school performance. This evaluation is sorely needed. After all, we have limited evidence about the first years of NCLB, largely because universal adoption offered no alternatives against which to compare it. The results of a smart evaluation could support a smarter political discussion.

These plaudits aside, the peer panel that evaluated the state applications identified a number of concerns. Several overarching issues surfaced.

One is that there are clearly defined paths for troubled schools, based on the severity of their shortcomings. Each of these paths must have specific objectives and clearly defined points where schools’ performance is reassessed and their classification revised. Schools should not have the option - intended or otherwise - of languishing indefinitely in suspended states of play. Once schools are identified as needing improvement, the proverbial glass should be half-empty until proven full. The requirement for schools to “move along” was absent in some proposals, which illustrates an abiding ambivalence in some states about their role and duty in certifying education quality.

Another issue that emerged is that states need reliable analytic techniques that reveal a school’s underlying condition. Do schools miss their targets by a little or miss by a mile? Is the problem one of weak instruction, poor discipline, or lax attendance? Much of the information states need to diagnose school performance arrives too late to be useful or exists in disconnected databases that impede integrated analysis. Indeed, in some states it will be years before the necessary information is readily available. Many states are working in murky waters.

A third issue is that states need to develop a menu of supports and interventions. They needed to link specific areas of a school’s needs with proven services and strategies from other school turnarounds.

Much of what we know today about effective schools is grounded in qualitative work on high-performing schools that has not been rigorously tested in tougher environments. The peer panel found many approaches proposed for dealing with our worst schools appeared insufficient in both scale and duration.

It is doubtful that strategies that aim at the margins will perform satisfactorily in schools where we need to address core issues. Our understanding of effective intervention with our worst schools will require much more innovation, experimentation and evaluation of results.

Finally, states need to be resolute in efforts to develop local district capacity to turn schools around or, failing that, move them out of the equation. The peer panel was united in the view that short-term interests, political or professional, cannot be allowed to impede the continuous improvement of thousands of schools that continue to shortchange students of the education they need and deserve.

Margaret E. Raymond is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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