Data, Rhetoric, and the Reauthorization of No Child Left Behind

If you read this blog regularly, you probably know that the battle over the reauthorization for No Child Left Behind is heating up and figures to be one of the policy issues dominating Washington over the next six months. In the Senate, Lamar Alexander leads the charge to alter both NCLB and the policies the Obama Administration pushed in exchange for granting states waivers to NCLB. The Administration has indicated it will fight to keep at least some of the provisions. Prognosticators are prognosticating.

My feelings towards NCLB are complex. In my opinion, it employs a lot of the right strategies but did not create sufficient resources for teachers, schools, and states to pursue those strategies in a meaningful way. NCLB has increased their workload without any providing them with much real benefit, and any rational choice theorist can tell you that’s a recipe tailor made to generate incredible hostility.

The thing is that NCLB, or the policies associated with waivers, have provided real benefits, or at least have not impeded real educational progress among the disadvantaged. For the first time, the federal government holds districts accountable for high school graduation rates. Is it just a coincidence that on-time graduation rates are up 5 percent since NCLB was signed into law? NCLB requires that schools, districts, and states report annually on the academic progress of traditionally disadvantaged populations for the first time. Does the law deserve any credit for the 18 percent decrease in the Hispanic dropout rate?

To attribute these successes solely to NCLB without any further analysis would be a mistake. Correlation does not equal causation. But the progress the country has made is real, so I cannot understand why the law seems to be universally regarded as a total failure, nor why so many people want to run away from the law’s central tenants of annual testing and subgroup reporting (although the latter seems far more likely to survive the reauthorization than the former).

Likewise, the teacher evaluation procedures the Obama Administration pushed through waivers have only started to be implemented. Value-Added Methodology is the most statistically valid, accurate method yet to link student and teacher performance. More importantly, it can provide teachers and principals valuable feedback that can help improve practice and ensure teachers are paired with the types of students that they teach the most successfully. 

VAM opponents have rightly pointed to flaws in these first systems, but shouldn’t those flaws spur talk of reform before we turn to outright rejection? If the tests that provide the data for VAM are not designed for that purpose, shouldn’t we try to fix the tests before we scuttle the entire endeavor? Any new educational policy needs at least five years to fully evaluate its impact, yet we seem ready to pull VAM out of teacher evaluation when it hasn’t even been implemented in some states yet. A healthy reauthorization debate might offer the option to use the problems with testing, teacher evaluation, and the rest of NCLB as feedback on what needs to be reformed. 

We should also ask whether we are sure NCLB’s policies are flawed, rather than being the right programs that indicate the need for changes in other parts of the system. Maybe VAM is producing the right teacher evaluation results, and the problem is that our teachers do not have sufficient time or resources to use them to get better. US teachers work twice as many hours as their counterparts in higher achieving countries with almost no planning time during which they can reflect, work with a mentor, or do any of the other things that might help them improve. Contemporary professional development is uneven at best, abysmal at worst. Instead of shooting the messenger, maybe the system should buck up and address the problems that teachers have been telling us about for 30 years.

Sadly, I am not optimistic that any of these questions will matter in the reauthorization. People who support NCLB’s policies lost the rhetorical battle a long time ago, and rhetoric wins in politics. Data, apparently, does not.

Elizabeth Sobka