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Learning from No Child Left Behind
How and Why the Nation's Most Important but Controversial Education Law Should Be Renewed
By John E. Chubb
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2009 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
Learning From No Child Left Behind
Make no mistake: the United States has an education problem. American students trail students in many other nations in math and science achievement. Only one-third of American students achieve proficiency in reading and math by our nation's own standards. Two-thirds of African American and Hispanic students achieve well below grade level. Educational problems beget economic and social problems. The nation would be significantly richer, more competitive, and less divided were we better and more equitably educated.
But the nation is also making progress. We are starting to learn. Students are making gains, slow and uneven to be sure but gains nonetheless. More important, at least for now, we are starting to understand much better than ever before how to help students learn. Over the last generation, the nation has been ambitious about school reform. Yes, a lot of traditional measures have been applied — more money, smaller classes — but so too have bolder, innovative ideas such as academic standards backed by meaningful accountability, report cards that make transparent school and potentially teacher performance, more opportunities for all families to choose their schools, and more competition for schools to satisfy students and parents. For these ideas, and many more, there is increasing evidence about what works, what does not, what is most important for student achievement, and what is less so.
A generation ago, achievement was worse than it is today, but worse still was our state of knowledge about how to improve matters. A Nation at Risk, now twenty-five years old, is widely regarded as the modern call to arms for school improvement. It documented very ably just how dire the nation's achievement problem had become. American students performed in the middle of the pack internationally, domestic test scores — the SAT, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) — had been falling since the 1960s, and the country's economy had just been battered by a decade of international competition. The situation was grave, the report argued, a veritable national security risk. In retrospect, its recommendations seem mild, focusing mostly on beefing up high school curricula. In its wake, high school requirements were raised, students began taking more academic courses, and schools received much more funding. Yet by 1990 achievement had not improved materially.
An important lesson was slowly being learned, however. Achievement was not going to rise without more creative and stronger measures. Throughout the 1990s, the country made more fundamental changes. The public school system was opened to alternative approaches largely through charter schools. Regular public schools faced competition for students and resources, as a matter of public policy, for the first time in history. Likewise without precedent, policymakers began to set standards for what students should learn and held schools accountable for results. Most of this action was taken by the states, with encouragement from the bully pulpit in Washington.
In 2002 the federal government returned to the forefront — in potentially historic fashion. With the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), supported by bipartisan majorities in Congress, the nation committed itself to the achievement of every student in America. The act set a concrete goal and deadline — universal proficiency in 2014. It backed its ambitions with a comprehensive system of accountability that was to touch every school in the country. For the United States, a federal system that has long reserved education for the states and school districts, NCLB was bold indeed.
However noble, firm measures often generate resistance. NCLB has faced controversy and criticism ever since it took effect. Educators largely do not like it. States chafe at the incursion on their historical turf. Because the law was vigorously advocated by President George W. Bush, and implemented by his Department of Education, it has become something of a political lightning rod, easily attacked by opponents as a tool of a Republican president — and an unpopular one as well.
With the election of President Barack Obama, education will receive renewed attention in Washington. NCLB will inevitably be a focus. The law is due for reauthorization, operating now under a temporary extension, as Congress awaits guidance from a new administration. NCLB is the largest source of federal funds to school districts, itself a reauthorization of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, channeling some $13 billion annually to schools with disadvantaged students. President Obama has expressed support for the law and clearly favors sending more federal dollars to needy schools.
President Obama also knows of the discontent with NCLB. The general pubic is losing faith in the law. A 2008 Education Next/ PEPG survey found only 50 percent of the public favoring reauthorization, down from 57 percent in 2007. The same poll found nearly half of all public school teachers wanting the law abolished. Teacher unions were the largest institutional contributors to the new president's election. NCLB reauthorization faces a strong political headwind.
Yet NCLB has strong forces behind it. The law was a culmination of decades of education policymaking in Congress. Education leaders there take a balanced view of the law's first eight years. They worked long and hard to put in place the law's basic principles. In exchange for federal dollars, they want meaningful accountability for student achievement. If schools fail to become places where students can receive a decent education, they want students to have alternatives and schools to face real sanctions. They want schools to measure up to high academic standards and their performance to be transparent to families and communities. In the end, they recognize that bold and innovative policies are bound to get some things wrong and require adjustment. NCLB is sound in its fundamentals, they believe, but its particulars need serious attention.
This viewpoint, we believe, is correct. Despite the controversy that NCLB has ignited, the law is making a positive difference. Students are learning. Policymakers are learning. Because of NCLB and the state laws that served as its precedent, our collective knowledge of how to make schools work has grown substantially. NCLB deserves to be reauthorized. It also needs to be improved. It contains elements of unfairness; several parts do not work well and require significant modification. At least one major piece should be scrapped altogether and replaced. The law requires more than minor fine-tuning, yet it also deserves credit and support. As we shall share, it has helped students achieve, and it has taught us how to drive educational improvement more successfully.CHAPTER 2
Eight years into the NCLB era, the United States is still very much at risk educationally. There must be no confusion about this point. Evidence comes from multiple sources, beginning with our own National Assessment of Education Progress, most recently administered in 2007. In the foundation subjects of reading and math, our levels of achievement are unacceptably low. Looking across the three tested grade levels — fourth, eighth, and twelfth — only one-third of all students on average are "proficient" or "advanced" in reading. In math, the average proficient or advanced rate is also about one-third, though it declines markedly with age, from about 40 percent at grade four to less than 25 percent in grade twelve. What this means, in practical terms, is that only a third of American young people are demonstrating full mastery of the knowledge and skills that education experts believe appropriate for their respective grade levels. For perspective, in the highest achieving nations in the world, two-thirds of all students demonstrate proficiency by NAEP standards.
For American students falling short of proficiency, the picture is even grimmer. Like most tests that measure students against objective standards (rather than against other students), NAEP establishes categories of performance to reflect distinct levels of mastery. If students do not reach full mastery — or proficiency — they can be considered "basic" if they show understanding of certain essentials of a subject or "below basic" if they fall short of grasping even the essentials. Falling below basic generally means performing several grade levels below age expectations. Based on the latest NAEP, roughly one-third of all students are achieving below basic. At this level, students leave highschool utterly unprepared for college or demanding work — if they graduate from high school at all. For the nation's black and Hispanic students, these numbers are worse still. Two-thirds on average score below basic in reading and in math. It is no surprise that urban dropout rates now frequently exceed 50 percent.
No Child Left Behind focuses on reading and math — so the law has certainly not cured what ails us. Yet, in fields that NCLB has hardly touched, science and history, matters are even more troubling. Science achievement is critical to many of the economic opportunities of the future. History is vital to citizenship at home and in the larger world that is ever more relevant to our young people. By NAEP standards, achievement in these areas is abysmal. About 15 percent of American students, again averaging across fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades, are proficient or advanced in history. In science the average is less than 25 percent.
The national data are reinforced by international data. Questions are sometimes raised whether NAEP performance levels are set too high, providing an unnecessarily discouraging view of US achievement. Fewer students score as proficient on NAEP than on any state achievement test. But when US students are compared to students internationally, the picture of underachievement remains the same. The most comprehensive international measure is the Program for International Assessment (PISA), which compares thirty Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations. The last two assessments, in 2003 and 2006, found US 15-year-olds, the age group tested, below the middle of the pack in math and science. The 2006 study showed US students in twenty-first place out of thirty nations in science and twenty-fifth out of thirty in math. What NAEP indicates about math and science achievement — that US students generally score low — is reinforced by comparisons with many other nations.
Weak achievement in school translates into weak achievement after graduation. Although the United States has a university system that is the envy of the world — and enrolls large numbers of international students — Americans do not take full advantage. Only 30 percent of American young people earn bachelor's degrees, a middling percentage relative to other nations. In 1995, the United States led the world in college degrees; today we are not in the top ten. Few Americans secure advanced degrees in technical fields — what the twenty-first century demands. For example, in 2005, among master's and doctoral degrees earned by US students, 13.7 percent were in science and 6.4 percent in engineering. Among Japanese students, 38.5 percent were in science and the same percentage in engineering.
These test scores matter, not only for the welfare of individual students but for the welfare of the nation as whole. Extensive research shows that individuals who obtain higher test scores on standardized achievement tests do better in the labor market. Similarly, the distribution of skills measured by achievement tests affects the distribution of income in society: chronic underperformance by low-income and minority students generates income disparities later in life. Finally, standardized test scores predict the acquisition of skills that affect the growth of national income and thus the future well-being of society.
This is an alarming and frustratingly familiar story. Policymakers have been hearing it since A Nation at Risk. The US has been behind other nations at least that long. NAEP scores have shown low levels of proficiency and gaping racial differences in achievement since then as well. But amidst these persistent causes for concern are genuine reasons for hope. Levels of achievement are low to be sure, but the nation's students have been making progress, and the progress is increasingly well understood.
Let us reexamine NAEP. In the 1990s, before NCLB and before most states implemented accountability systems, US fourth graders scored 12 percent proficient or above in math — just 12 percent. Since 2000, the average has risen to 39 percent, a threefold increase. Among white fourth graders, proficient or advanced scores jumped from 15 to 51 percent, among blacks from 1 to 15 percent, and among Hispanics from 4 to 22 percent. At grade eight, the gains in math were not quite as large, but dramatic nonetheless: 15 to 31 percent overall, 18 to 41 percent among whites, 5 to 11 percent among blacks, and 7 to 15 percent among Hispanics. By any standard these are very large gains.
In reading, progress has also occurred. It has been slower, as reading gains typically are. Reading is a skill heavily influenced by the home and community environment and harder for schools to drive than is math. Yet, in grades four and eight, overall scores of proficient or advanced rose 5 percent from the 1990s to the 2000s. Among white students the gains averaged 7 points, among black students 5 points, and among Hispanic students 4 points.
These gains are consistent with the implementation of NCLB and the state accountability systems that set the precedent for NCLB. It is far too early to estimate with confidence the impact that NCLB has had on rising math and reading scores. But more disaggregated views of NAEP data point to NCLB as a possible cause. A recent study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute examined the achievement of two important subgroups — the lowest achieving 10 percent of the population, or the students most at risk of being "left behind," and the top 10 percent of the distribution, or the students some fear NCLB may cause to be neglected. That analysis found very impressive gains by the lowest 10 percent in math from 2000 to 2007: 18 scale points at grade four and 13 scale points at grade eight. Roughly 11 scale points represent one grade equivalent. In the brief NCLB era, then, the nation's lowest students gained materially in math. Happily, math gains were also made by the top students, though not as great as the lowest students: 10 and 5 scale points in grades four and eight respectively.
In reading, the news was very good at grade four for the lowest 10 percent: skills rose 16 points on the NAEP scale. Again, this gain was from just 2000 to 2007. Top students improved, but only by 3 points over this time span. In grade eight reading, the pattern was not so encouraging: the lowest students gained zero while the top students lost 3 points. Nevertheless, in math large gains were made by both subgroups at both grades. In grade four reading the weakest students progressed more than a grade equivalent while top students inched forward. In both subjects and grade levels, the gap in achievement between top and bottom narrowed.
The Fordham study also examined whether the gains that occurred after 2000 were unique to this NCLB era or were continuations of trends that began in the 1990s. The lowest NAEP achievement decile gained at a significantly higher rate during the NCLB era than during the 1990s. The highest achievement decile gained at about the same rate in both eras. Overall, it appears that reforms during the 1990s, largely at the state levels, promoted achievement gains in reading and especially in math. During the 2000s, these gains continued but accelerated for the lowest achieving students.
Progress in reading and math, however, has not been replicated in science and history. Scores from the 1990s and 2000s are virtually identical — and low. This is obviously not part of the good-news story, but it is relevant to the tale of progress. The NCLB era that began as the legislation took shape in 2001, and the accountability era that began in the states in the 1990s, have been associated with substantial achievement gains in math and lesser gains in reading — without question. The focus of these times has been sharply on improving math and reading skills. Science and social studies have been of secondary concern in the states, if considered at all. The lack of progress in these subjects is consistent with the hypothesis that NCLB and state accountability requirements are having an impact. As we shall see subsequently, there is additional evidence that accountability is working.
Excerpted from Learning from No Child Left Behind by John E. Chubb. Copyright © 2009 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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