Believing That a "Meteor" or Some New Accountability System Will Destroy the Educational Status Quo

12/19/2011 03:20 pm ET | Updated Feb 18, 2012

As the tenth anniversary of No Child Left Behind approaches, the obvious question about bubble-in mania -- I mean "consequential accountability" -- is being asked by Mark Schneider in "Has the Accountability Movement Run Its Course?" Schneider acknowledges that the "accountability movement has likely reached a point of diminishing (or perhaps no returns)," but he claims that the Texas experience in raising math test scores shows that NCLB "ought not be dismissed as a failed initiative."

Schneider compares the NCLB-type accountability to a meteor that produced an "exogenous shock" to schools. He admits that accountability has not improved reading, because that skill may be "dependent on what happens early in children's lives -- before they enroll in school." He holds hope that a new type of "meteor" will hit schools, and shock education into improvement. Schneider does not speculate on a second meteor, however, that could hit families in their homes or in pre-school where reading for comprehension should begin.

Given Schneider's apparently continuing faith in bubble-in tests to create meteoric change, questions arise, such as:

1. After 1992, Texas scores on the federal NAEP math tests increased because:
a) The "Texas Miracle" turned out to be a mirage producing a "bubble" in state test scores which did not translate into other tests, but it increased performance on that one test;
b) The recessions caused by Voo Doo economics ended, as did the Texas oil bust, and the banking collapse created by Reaganomics;
c) During the Clinton years, longterm joblessness plummeted, the unemployment rate for parents without high school diplomas dropped dramatically, and the crack epidemic ended, meaning that indicators of family well-being improved for poor people, generating the hope that is crucial for educational improvements;
d) During the 1990s, much of the revitalized energy sector relocated to the Gulf coast and NAFTA attracted corporate relocations to the I-35 corridor, creating demographic changes that improved NAEP scores faster than the rest of the country.

2. True or False. Before 1992, Texas and other states were investing heavily in professional development for teaching deep understanding of math, so elementary teachers had always had the knowledge of how to do a better job but needed a kick in the pants.

3. Since the elementary school teachers who dramatically improved math scores were the same teachers who failed to increase reading scores, the best way to improve education is:
a) Reconsider the idea that test-driven evaluations of teacher quality can drive reform;
b) Fire secondary teachers of subjects that require reading in poor schools serving students who did not learn to read in elementary schools during the late, great age of accountability;
c) Join Schneider in the hope that Common Core and better measurement of teacher performance will shock the system, and "if the United States is lucky, one or both of these shocks will produce yet another uptick in math scores;"
d) Join Schneider in hoping, "if we are really lucky, these shocks will produce upticks in reading and other subject areas."

Seriously, Schneider's analysis is just the latest attempt to explain away the inconvenient truth that the growth in NAEP test scores slowed after billions of dollars were invested in NCLB. Common sense says that the large gains in student achievement that occurred during the Clinton years were mostly attributable to improvements in the economy and the health of low-income families during the boom years. It was that prosperity that allowed some "early adopters" to invest in both "consequential accountability" and professional development for better math instruction. And Schneider's evidence is consistent with that of Linda Darling-Hammond who makes an overwhelming case for better teacher preparation.

I want to be clear. Schneider's research skills are unassailable. And nobody yet has the skills to evaluate the interaction of educational policy with the economic and cultural changes in the 1990s. It makes no sense, however, to assume that the one simple correlation described by Schneider was remotely as important as other causes of improvements before NCLB. Neither does he address the powerful explanations of how and why NCLB slowed test score growth.

Less seriously, it raises the question:

4. If you believe that it is possible to conduct the high-quality professional development needed to properly implement Common Core in tandem with teacher evaluations that are driven by test score growth, then you must also believe:
a) Increasing math scores is enough to justify the imposition of primitive test prep, narrowing the curriculum, pushing out of more difficult-to-educate students, burning out teachers, and promoting statistical gamesmanship;
b) This time, the "billionaires boys clubs'"consultants will get it right;
c) Bill Gates should fund a Measuring Effective Meteor Project, targeting extraterrestrial strikes on the parts of teachers' brains that inhibit the instruction of reading, but not math;
d) NCLB-type accountability has not failed.