Education Reform That Won't Be Left Behind

Two experts on No Child Left Behind advocate fixing the flaws in this important reform effort
Two experts on No Child Left Behind advocate fixing the flaws in this important reform effort.

by Jennifer Beck
What shape will federal education reform take under the new president's leadership? What will become of No Child Left Behind once our nation's soon-to-be-elected leader has settled into the Oval Office? With the November election only weeks away, these questions are ripe for debate. School of Education and Social Policy faculty members Larry Hedges and David Figlio weighed in on the future of federal education reform as the country prepares to welcome a new Presidential administration.

Professor Larry Hedges discusses the impact of teachers at a policy briefing on children's achievement sponsored by Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research
Professor Larry Hedges discusses the impact of teachers at a policy briefing on children's achievement sponsored by Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research.
Photo by Jason Reblando






In scenes of U.S. classrooms, Kate Sprague (MS06) teaches fifth graders at Devonshire School, Katherine Caraballo and Frank Colon respond to science tests at Roberto Clemente High School and a student practices computing at North Kenwood Oakland Middle School
Photos by Andrew Campbell and Ben Shapiro


Hedges, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, is Board of Trustees Professor of Statistics and Social Policy and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research. The expert in statistics and education policy credits NCLB with being an important effort in recognizing the serious issue of inequality in education in the United States. "No Child Left Behind is a courageous law in that it was a first step in trying to address a really difficult problem in American education," he says. Even so, he emphasizes that the law "is flawed and needs to be corrected."

Figlio, a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research, also sees positive and negative aspects to the current federal reform effort. "One thing that is attractive about accountability and No Child Left Behind is that we want to shine a light on the performance of every child," explains the expert in economics and education policy. "I think accountability could be a very good idea. How one implements accountability is crucial," he says.

Improving accountability
In his research, Figlio, a professor at the University of Florida prior to joining Northwestern, studies the responses schools have to accountability systems such as NCLB. In particular, he looks in depth at the associated incentives. He emphasizes the importance of considering the full range of behaviors encouraged by a given accountability system. His work, based largely in Florida but involving other states as well, has included investigating methods schools use to increase their standardized test scores. On the positive side, he has found schools incorporating small groups within classrooms, offering additional instruction to struggling learners and providing teachers with more autonomy.

More troubling, he has found that schools in several states, whether intentionally or not, responded to accountability in a more manipulative, or "gaming," fashion. Examples include a greater emphasis on tested subjects, classifying slower learners as learning disabled, assigning longer-than-normal suspensions to perceived low scorers during the testing window and changing school meals on testing days to feature a "brain boost" type of diet.

Figlio acknowledges that it is not surprising to see schools spending more time on tested subjects and even concedes that, when state standards are "rigorous," focusing on these areas might be a desirable and even intended outcome by some. However, he calls the other behaviors "less easily justified." He believes that more genuine and lasting improvements are possible across the board with some adjustments to education reform.

"No Child Left Behind has flaws," he says, but quickly points out that they can be fixed. He suggests clarifying what constitutes an acceptable standard across state lines. "Make it so that — especially since federal money is at stake — schools in different states have an equal playing field," he says. In addition, he encourages measuring a broader range of subjects, in part to help prevent narrowing of the curriculum. "Schools need additional incentives to continue to concentrate on subjects besides reading and math," he explains.

Perhaps most significantly, he advocates moving to a system that focuses on measuring yearly learning gains instead of proficiency rates. He saw evidence that when the state of Florida adopted a system in 2002 that also looked at learning gains, manipulative behaviors ended and test scores increased, becoming more genuine as well. He also applauds the supportive nature of Florida's current system in which poorly performing schools are sanctioned but receive additional assistance. In contrast, "No Child Left Behind is punitive now," he says.

Professor David Figlio, who studies school accountability systems such as No Child Left Behind, talks with students at Williams Elementary School in Gainesville, Florida
Professor David Figlio, who studies school accountability systems such as No Child Left Behind, talks with students at Williams Elementary School in Gainesville, Florida.
Photo by Ray Carson

Spotlight on research
Hedges also points to concerns about some of the expectations of NCLB. He advocates an even greater investment in educational research that informs technical changes — especially those addressing attainability — as keys to solving the reform issues. He explains that NCLB mandates schools resolve long-term problems without necessarily having adequate resources, such as time and information, to do so effectively. Based on his studies of academic achievement gaps, for example, he points out that the rate of closing these gaps over the years is not as quick as what the current law is requiring.

Hedges advocates seeking out "rapid but attainable progress." He suggests working with the concept of adequate yearly progress so that the goals are ambitious but can be reached. He emphasizes, however, that more information is necessary first. "We need to continue to support rigorous research," says Hedges, who has advised national and international organizations on large-scale assessment including the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which gauges student achievement over time and created The Nation's Report Card. He explains that it is necessary to learn more in order to identify the best possible solution, including potential advantages and disadvantages. "That's the kind of issue we need to address and understand, then make a wise choice," he notes.

Looking ahead, Hedges would like to see the goals of the law preserved under the new president's leadership, "I hope that the new administration would keep the pressure on America's schools to take seriously the education of all children and continue to make progress to reduce inequality," he says.

He would also like to see federal or other policies that encourage students to pursue careers in education. "One thing that is encouraging in American education now is that a lot of young people are choosing to work in education," he says. Even if it is only for a part of their careers, Hedges hopes that even more will select this path, seeing it as a way to contribute to the world.
By Jennifer Beck