Building on the Values of No Child Left Behind

04/04/2012 02:11 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2012
  • Eric Smith Fellow in education policy, George W. Bush Institute

Last week, the nation's top public school officials gathered in Washington,
D.C. for the annual legislative conference of the Council of Chief State
School Officers.

The hot topic, unsurprisingly, was the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB),
which recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary. Several attendees --
charged with implementing the law in their respective states -- have applied
for federal waivers from this law.

Some school officials have found it difficult to meet the law's standards
requiring that every student -- even those that are poor or in minority
groups -- make progress each year.

NCLB might need some tinkering. As the discussion about reauthorization
continues, it's vital for students and the future of this country that the
core principles of accountability, transparency and equality be preserved.

The George W. Bush Institute recently released ten "principles" that serve
as guidance for state accountability. These principles show how to build on
the foundation established by NCLB and then further improve the key areas of
standards, student groups, parental choice, and college and career

Over the last decade, the United States has witnessed a dramatic improvement
in student performance -- especially among previously underserved students
at the lowest socioeconomic rungs. Those gains were in large part the result
strong accountability systems, which forced states and school districts to
pay more attention to underserved students.

Indeed, one key principle of a strong accountability system is that schools
need to be measured against concrete goals to reduce the achievement gap
between student groups.

To meet those goals, schools need information, in the form of annual tests,
and they need that information broken down across various groups, like
English Language Learners and African-American students. This data shows
where disparities exist.

Another key principle of a meaningful accountability system is that data
needs to be published, publicly available, and in a format that non-experts
-- i.e., parents -- can understand the results.

Parents and educators need to know not just how the average student in a
school performs, but how the most disadvantaged students are being educated.
As accountability has taken hold, we have seen how important it is to
measure the performance of traditional subgroups. We are also learning that
another critical angle is reviewing the performance of the lowest performing
students, referred to as a "super-subgroup" in some states. No school should
be rated as high-performing if it doesn't show gains in the performance of
all subgroups.

The nation's emphasis on public accountability has led to a significant
improvement in core students skills. For instance, research from
Northwestern University shows that the legislation is responsible for
raising math achievement by six to nine months for fourth graders, and four
to twelve months for eighth graders.

These gains help us ensure that every student graduates from high school
ready to do college-level work or start a satisfying career.

Disadvantaged children have seen the greatest gains. African-American
children increased their National Assessment of Education Progress scores by
21 points in mathematics between 2000-2011. That's two grade levels of

The Brookings Institute has looked at the effect of accountability and
concluded these systems have had a "positive effect" on elementary student
performance and that much of the gains are "concentrated among traditionally
disadvantaged populations."

Brookings also found that when schools are more accountable to those they
serve, students become more engaged in their own education. Specifically,
researchers noted marked increases in teacher-reported measures of student
engagement, which includes things like attendance rates, timeliness, and
intellectual interest.

Another essential principle of strong accountability systems is state
intervention when schools don't see achievement rates rise. And the most
intensive interventions should occur in schools whose students don't reach
grade-level standards.

In that vein, school choice is an important option for students. Every
single student deserves a quality education. It is simply not acceptable for
a parent to be forced to keep their child in a failing school in the hope
that the local teachers and administrators will eventually clean up their

States generally want to be creative and federal legislation isn't standing
in their way of doing that. Officials are empowered to employ tools beyond
the standard choice policy of vouchers, including innovative reforms like
allowing students in low-performing schools to get connected with high
quality educators online.

The George W. Bush Institute's principles call on states to build on the
current foundation, apply the lessons learned, and provide parents with an
even broader array of choices if their child is trapped in a persistently
low-performing school.

Recently, President Obama declared that "the best ideas aren't going to come
from Washington alone. Our job is to harness those ideas, and to hold states
and schools accountable for making them work."

That's exactly right. But that doesn't require abandoning the core
principles of accountability, transparency and equality.