Leaving No Child Behind

Can an emphasis on accountability stimulate educational reform?
By Leanne Star

If ever a piece of legislation had good intentions, it was the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The result of a bipartisan effort, the 670-page act summarizes its mission eloquently: "To close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility and choice, so that no child is left behind."

Photo by Jim Ziv.

But the road to educational reform is paved with good intentions - something that perhaps no one knows better than G. Alfred Hess Jr., research professor of education and social policy and director of the Center for Urban School Policy. Hess has a nose for nuance. Experience has taught him that educational reform can never be achieved as easily or as quickly as the public would like and that some reforms can have unintended negative consequences.

"No Child Left Behind has an ambitious agenda and timeline, and in lots of ways it has oversimplified complex issues," says Hess. "Some of its goals may never be realized." Nevertheless, Hess sees the legislation as a worthwhile challenge, not only for schools across the United States, but for researchers at the School of Education and Social Policy.

" The improvement plans being proposed by individual states to meet the demands of No Child Left Behind must be based on scientific research. That brings a new rigor into how we evaluate education and has a direct impact on schools of education," says Hess. "The big question is, 'How do we think about public education in the 21st century?' Do we think about it in terms of what we put into it, or do we look at the outcome?"

That shift in emphasis - from input to outcome - is at the heart of No Child Left Behind. The old thinking, that throwing more funding at schools would fix everything, has not worked, says Hess. "Resources are important, but they don't guarantee success. Chicago provides a good example of that. The improvement in resources from the late 1980s to the early 1990s was not matched by the outcome of better test scores."

The new emphasis on outcome borrows another page from Chicago's experience. "No Child Left Behind brings to the national level the kind of accountability Chicago pioneered in the 1990s," says Hess, who had a big part in that [See "Grading Chicago Schools" in the spring 2002 issue of Inquiry]. The legislation, which mandates that students meet specific state achievement goals every year, requires that schools test children annually between third and eighth grade and at least once during high school. The testing requirements are being phased in, with some tests, like those in science, not required until the 2007-08 school year.

Even so, the new requirements have already had an impact. In July the Chicago Tribune ran a page-one article under the banner headline "State schools stumble on tests." According to the article, "the number of Illinois public schools labeled as academically failing
By Leanne Star