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What No Child Left Behind did and didn't do

No Child Left Behind, the most influential and infuriating federal education law in 40 years, is not quite dead, but getting close. The Obama administration and Congress say they will discard it soon for something different. Nobody's paying much attention to it any more. The term AYP has fallen out of favor among us education writers.

So I was pleased to see that two of those superbright economists who seem to be doing all the education research these days, Thomas S. Dee of the University of Virginia and Brian Jacob of the University of Michigan, have provided a quick summary of what NCLB did, before we forget it ever existed. They have reviewed all the relevant papers and come up with some surprising conclusions:

No Child Left Behind helped fourth and eighth grade math achievement the most, particularly minorities. It didn't do much for fourth or eighth grade reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

NCLB inspired an increase in per-pupil spending of about $733 in states that did not have a school accountability program before the law was passed. But, confirming the complaints of local officials that the feds were hitting them with an unfunded mandate, almost all of this new spending was state and local, not federal, money.

The law appeared to increase instructional time for reading and math, but the authors caution that “the majority of evidence on this point comes from teacher and/or administrator survey data that is subject to some potential biases.”

And in what has to be the most surprising and most likely to be disbelieved of their conclusions, Dee and Jacob said “we also found evidence that NCLB led to increases in teacher-reported measures of student engagement." That means teacher reports of student tardiness, absenteeism, class cutting, dropping out and poor preparation declined once the law was in place, although Dee told me in an email the data on this is also weak.

The paper's title is “The Impact of No Child Left Behind on Students, Teachers and Schools.” Most of it is comprehensible even by those of us so traumatized by Economics 1 our sophomore year that we never took another course in that subject. Here is what they said about the fourth-grade math improvement:

“The estimates suggest that NCLB increased the proportion of 4th graders reaching the basic level on NAEP by 10 percentage points. . . .While we find that NCLB had larger impacts among lower-achieving students, we do not find any evidence that the introduction of NCLB harmed students at higher points on the achievement distribution. In contrast to some prior work within individual school districts and states, we find that NCLB seemed to increase achievement at higher points on the achievement distribution more than one might have expected. For example, in 4th grade math, the impacts at the 75th percentile were only 3 scale points lower than at the 10th percentile.”

Yes, I know. They didn't remind us that correlation, which is what they are reporting, does not necessarily mean causation. They both live in academic environments where everyone knows that, and would be insulted to be reminded, like my wife telling me, as she did several times during our recent drive to California, that I had left the turn signal on.

Dee and Jacob end their paper with an interesting, and controversial, warning. They analyze an Obama administration blueprint, released last March, for its replacement of NCLB in the next reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The authors note that the new administration wants to keep testing students every year, just like NCLB, but allow for flexibility in how states calculate the results. States could, for instance, switch to value-added test results, which say how much each child improved from one annual test to the next.

The Obama blueprint also “calls for the use of non-test accountability indicators, especially measures of college and career readiness . . . [and] proposes to give states increased flexibility in how they might intervene in low-performing schools, only mandating specific consequences for the very lowest-performing schools and those schools with persistently large achievement gaps,” the authors say.

It is that potential lack of consequences, a toothless successor to the NCLB that no longer requires many schools to do much about low achievement, that concerns them. “The literature on pre-NCLB accountability policies suggests that simply reporting accountability measures that were unconnected to explicit consequences did not drive improvements in student achievement,” they say.

When Congress finally gets around to debating what should replace NCLB, I bet we will hear that sentence repeated many times.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | September 17, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  Brian Jacob, No Child Left Behind, Thomas S. Dee, better 4th grade math scores, more student engagement, report summarizes what progress made under NCLB  
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NCLB, with all its flaws (AYP being the most deleterious), formally acknowledged how our public schools were and were not performing.

First and foremost, it objectively documented the long believed achievement gap (it's actually the parent gap - kids with responsible parents have an enormous life advantage over children with morons for parents/guardians). Poor/minority US students proved to be significantly behind their white and Asian peers academically.

What many critics of this federal legislation failed to acknowledge however, is the law was necessary; necessary in that the ubiquitous practices by teachers of social promotions and 'graduating' students reading at a second or third grade level (or worse) had totally distorted any semblance of accountability in our schools. Teachers could no longer be trusted to give parents and taxpayers an honest portrayal as to how students were performing.

This, of course, was the rationale behind the legislation's bi-partisan support and why all fifty states and the District of Columbia were essentially forced to embrace it.

So bash it if you must but remember; if it weren't for NCLB we'd still be living in a fairy tale world of feel good education as promoted by the NEA, and to some degree, the AFT. Feel good as in TBall, where no one keeps score, everyone is declared a winner, and in the end, everyone gets a trophy.

As a retired Massachusetts public school teacher I laud A Nation AT Risk, the education reform that followed, and especially NCLB.

Posted by: phoss1 | September 17, 2010 6:47 AM | Report abuse

It makes sense that NCLB increased 4th grade Math scores even on NAEP and that Math instruction was improved enough to carry through 8th grade. How many elementary teachers knew enough to teach Math and how could you find Math teachers for poor secondary schools before the NCLB money? But as was predicted before, the extra time for reading probably just increased decoding not comprehension because it isolated reading from a broad curriculum.

I'd doubt the student engagement data. NCLB prompted shameless efforts to fabricate attendance data. Having kids work off absences through after-school detention or just picking up trash was subsidized by NCLB, and fabricating attendance data is even easier than fabricating graduation stats.

What did the $733 per student buy? Mostly it was support staff not classroom teachers who were hired. In some affluent districts, they may have had the time and infrastructure to organize the complex array of new programs, but my poor district sure didn't and most was wasted on generating reports and CYA. For instance John Hopkins explained that if a school had dozens of students who needed remediation, NCLB remdiation could work. But if a school had hundreds to be remdiated, the system broke down. It sure couldn't coordinate services.

Soon we'll be missing that easy money that showed meager results.

Did the study address the actual harm done by NCLB which teachers vividly saw?

The best thing about NCLB was disaggregating data by race and class. The worst thing was applying stakes to it. As was mentioned elsewhere yesterday, poor people have been moving to the suburbs. I hope suburban schools like Montgomery County would have still welcomed the assistance in learning how to help poor kids. But we didn't do those poor kids any favors, I suspect, by forcing suburban schools to damage the education they offered to everyone through educational malpractice like nonstop test prep, curriculum pacing, narrowing the curriculum, focusing on remediation not addressing the problems earlier, bogus credit recovery, and lying about statistics.

Wosrt, it damaged pre-school and early ed by starting the focus on 4th grade. Accountability sucks all of the air away from the teaching of reading by 3rd grade

More money was spent on professional development. But in my district NCLB killed an outstanding Curriculum department and replaced it with "data-driven" professional development that "reformers" assume is better. Now we teachers ignore its busy work and CYA. And that brings up the harm done to morale.

Did they mention opportunity costs? How much would we have benefitted by hiring poor people to dig holes and bury the NCLB money in it?

Posted by: johnt4853 | September 17, 2010 7:51 AM | Report abuse

While I believe that NCLB did raise the minimum bar, it also became a barrier for some due to administrative decisions that attempted to have higher test passing rates rather than higher educational attainment for some students. For instance, when aministration at the 8th grade level keeps a very tight fence on their algebra I classes in order to show off their marvelous passing rates, some kids do get left behind. This limits the number of students that will eventually take higher level math in high school. Furthermore, I know of a situation in which large numbers of kids were funneled into the high school algebra I part I for their freshman year and then algebra part II for their sophomore year. When the high school administration attempted to break this cycle, upon analyzing test scores from junior high indicating greater capability, they were met with resistance from central office because of AYP issues - had to keep up the illusion of great learning.

Posted by: shadwell1 | September 17, 2010 8:17 AM | Report abuse

The question I ask is: Did NAEP scores increase because kids became more adept at test taking? Or did NCLB really increase knowledge?

Posted by: ilcn | September 17, 2010 9:19 AM | Report abuse

How can we know whether NCLB has hurt high-achieving students when we rely on grade-level tests to measure their progress? A bright kid could come in above grade level, learn absolutely NOTHING during the year, but still manage to ace a too-easy test.

I'd like to see the fixed grade-level assessments be replaced by adaptive ones that track the individual student's progress. That way we would know whether or not bright kids are actually learning anything.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | September 17, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

"So I was pleased to see that two of those superbright economists who seem to be doing all the education research these days,"

Excuse me? Where have you been? Ravitch, Darling-Hammond, Koretz, Fryer? In fact, every PhD candidate and tenure-track professor in America is required to conduct peer-reviewed research that advance their field. Or did you mean, they're the only ones doing educational reseach that you could cherry-pick quotes you agree with? For example, how about the finding that, in response to NCLB, time was reallocated away from social studies and Science to the tested subjects? From their own data, it appears NCLB was an expensive program that provided marginal improvement in math, not reading, for some, not all, student populations. In addition, the study does not address the educational, as opposed to the economic costs or NCLB. If you take time away from science and history and devote it to math and reading, one would expect test results on math and reading to improve, while results on science and history will decline. It appears math improved, slightly, and reading did not, but what of the other subjects? And what of the long-term effects? Science and Social Studies require higher-level analytical and evaluative skills that reading and math do not.

Diane Ravitch has already written the definiative history of NCLB. these guys are just playing around the edges.

Posted by: mcstowy | September 17, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse


In my district, adaptive testing was another casuality of NCLB. Its like Gresham's Law where bad money chases out good. In education bad testing systems chase out good ones.

Posted by: johnt4853 | September 17, 2010 10:27 AM | Report abuse

School boards and principals are the ones responsible for social promotion, not the teachers.

Posted by: edlharris | September 17, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

Having economists comment on education policy is like have engineers comment on expressionist art. The two don't mix well in either case; however, commentary from economists has the patina of objective reality. Kind of like the patina those guys in white coats from "The Tobacco Institute" gave to a thumbs-up for smoking and public health.

Posted by: pftpres | September 17, 2010 5:08 PM | Report abuse

Ed Harris,

Not sure where you teach but here in Massachusetts the classroom teacher makes the call and then deals with the fallout from parents.

Posted by: phoss1 | September 17, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

So NCLB raised math scores but not reading. Seems like a dud since it focussed attention on math and reading to the exclusion of non-NCLB tested subjects. You'd think there'd be some effect on reading. What happened to students' knowledge of history, geography, and science?

Posted by: dz159 | September 17, 2010 9:06 PM | Report abuse

Jay wrote: "Nobody's paying much attention to it any more. The term AYP has fallen out of favor among us education writers."

People are paying attention, and perhaps education writers aren't using AYP but it is still a huge focus on schools, with serious ramifications; see TC Williams, and other schools in the news recently who have had to "transform and restructure" sometimes losing beloved principals and whole staffs, based on a small group of students who barely missed passing a particular test.

Seriously Jay, NCLB is still having a huge effect, as is AYP. Just because you choose not to write about it, doesn't mean it is "gone"... and it is odd since you used to espouse it as a great thing, now that it plays out in the manner those who read between the lines originally thought it would (i.e. ramifications beyond the reasonable)you no longer discuss it??

Posted by: researcher2 | September 18, 2010 6:53 AM | Report abuse

Hmm. The nation would be better served if economists stuck to the economy.

A peer-reviewed article published this month in the Education Policy Analysis Archives, "The Black-White Achievement Gap Revisited," tells a very different story:

the general picture is quite clear:
The introduction of high stakes test-based accountability through NCLB has had, at best, a very modest impact on the rates of improvement for Black students and on the pace of reductions in the achievement gaps between Black students and White students. This is the case at all three levels of aggregation examined in this study. It is most worrisome not only that the magnitudes of these achievement gaps are so large relative to differences between states (and even stratum gaps within states) but also that the annual rate of reduction over a seven year period ranges from less than onethird of a point in S1 [mild poverty] to just one point in S2 [severe poverty]. Linear extrapolation predicts that achievement gaps will remain
substantial for the foreseeable future. So we must conclude on the basis of our analysis of the data from 2000 to 2007, as we did on the basis of data from 1992 to 2000, that the achievement
gap remains “pervasive, profound, and persistent.”

In summary, the association between policy and outcomes was stronger for the overallpolicy ranking than that for any of the individual policy levers. This suggests that states should adopt a comprehensive reform strategy rather than relying on one that is narrowly focused. In particular, we should not pin our hopes solely on the sort of test-based accountability enshrined in NCLB – it
does not appear to be up to the job.

Finally, the modest association between our overall index of states’ policy reform efforts andstates’ results (particularly for schools in the higher poverty stratum) suggest that we are in need of both more powerful theories of reform and a greater capacity to measure the relevant policy dimensions as they play out in schools.

Posted by: DickSchutz | September 18, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

My children went to school in Maryland.
It's the school boards & superintendents who set policy on retention, which eventually filters down to the classroom.

Posted by: edlharris | September 18, 2010 10:15 PM | Report abuse

What NCLB really did was create a testing frenzy. It has created a culture at my school in Maryland where the so-called "assessed classes" (in MD 10th grade English, LSN Government, Biology, and Algebra) are the sole focus of the school. At a recent "staff development" event we were discussing a document labeled the "School Improvement Plan". The only thing listed on this plan were the aforementioned mentioned "assessed classes". When I asked where the fine arts improvement goals were I was given a dirty look and ignored.

NCLB had destroyed arts programs across the country. Currently in my school some students who have not passed an HSA are being fulled out of "non-assessed" classes as much as 40% of available class time. Some students on the so-called bridge plan are missing 100% of instructional time.

I have brought this to the attention of administrators in the past and have been literally screamed at. I demonstrated that by rotating the class a student was "pulled out" of the student would miss no more than 10% of instructional time from any one class and still receive the same amount of testing remediation. I was told this was too complicated and that I should just "get on board and be a part of the team"

This is what NCLB has done.

Posted by: rsburton78 | September 19, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

For researcher2, I was always critical of the form of the AYP accountability system, and said expecting 100 percent proficiency by 2014 was nuts. But I also said it was better than what we had before, which was targets without teeth that hardly anyone paid attention to. The AYP controversy at TC Williams was way out of proportion, as I said in a blog post at the time, but I don't see it doing the school any harm. Focusing on what is happening to underserved kids is good.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 19, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

"Focusing on what is happening to under served kids is good."

Well, yeah. But this has been recognized since the origin of ESEA in 1965. Title I clearly stated that.

AYP is not bad only in "form"; it's bad in substance. It's a impossible statistical formula that dooms ALL schools to be labeled as "failing" by 2014.

"Reformers" are recognizing now that this is is unreasonable. But what are they concluding? Not that their ideology is unreasonable but that it's unreasonable to expect that we can teach all kids to read by Grade 3

And who are the kids that are not being taught? By and large they're the poor and minority kids who are under served.

We're back below the "soft bigotry." We're now chasing a goal of delivering all kids as "college and career ready" high school graduates by 2020. The 2014 kids are already in the education pipeline and many are not being taught how to read.

You don't see any of this as doing any harm, Jay?

Posted by: DickSchutz | September 20, 2010 8:10 AM | Report abuse

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