Congress has begun hearings on the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind law. Members of Congress now have ample research to help them make key decisions on the future of a law that affects most of the children in the United States.
What the research reveals is that NCLB has flaws, but changes can be made that preserve its basic goals of school accountability and student improvement.
Experience with NCLB has prompted important questions, including: Why shortchange important subjects such as science and social studies? Does it make sense for states to have differing definitions of what makes a student proficient in a subject? Should school districts be required to offer school-choice options when few parents take advantage of the choice programs required by the law?
Research shows that schools are reacting to NCLB's focus on reading and math by taking time away from other subjects, such as science, social studies and physical education. If parents and teachers value these subjects, they ought to be included in NCLB's accountability system. And Congress should ensure that all educational outcomes important to society, not just math and reading, are included in determining whether a school is performing well.
NCLB uses "proficiency" to determine whether students and schools are making progress, yet each state defines proficiency differently. This leaves many children behind their peers in other states. If the goal is to foster achievement for all students, Congress should encourage similar standards across all states.
Congress also ought to adopt the principle that schools should be rewarded for improving performance across the distribution of achievement, not just at the proficient level. RAND Corp. research shows that teachers are focusing more attention on students who are close to the proficient level and less attention on those at higher and lower levels.
There are "value-added" methods for computing progress that would accomplish this goal of giving credit for improvement at all levels. Shifting to such measurements also would send better signals to teachers who are struggling to meet the needs of students with limited English proficiency and students with disabilities - without compromising the law's important steps to make sure these students are counted.
High-paying jobs require higher-order skills, so schools should be encouraged to promote advanced learning for all students. One way to encourage this is to have the accountability system include problem-solving and higher-order thinking skills. Many of the current multiple-choice tests focus exclusively on facts and routine tasks.
When a school fails to meet NCLB's "adequate yearly progress" requirements, it is identified as a candidate for "intervention." Since 2001, the number of schools - and school districts - that require interventions has nearly outgrown the available resources to bring them up to grade. That is, the rules identify more schools than states know how to serve. There are essentially two remedies for this: Provide more resources or identify fewer schools.
One idea Congress should consider is to set more reasonable annual targets. Another is to narrow interventions to schools that have either failed to show improvement for several years or that serve the largest number of students who are not proficient.
Research also shows that parents are not moving their eligible children from low-performing schools to high-performing schools. There are three reasons for this: First, in many districts, there are no high-performing schools to which students can transfer. Second, research has found that many school districts that have eligible schools are not notifying eligible students and their parents in a clear and timely manner about the transfer option. Finally, most parents who are notified in time do not want to send their students to a school outside their neighborhood.
Surprisingly, there is little evidence that the few students who have opted for a transfer have demonstrated marked improvement. But supplemental services such as tutoring have shown success in improving students' performance. These services were included in the original NCLB bill, and Congress should consider incorporating more and earlier individual tutoring into the improvement process, with a diminished role for the transfer option.
Under NCLB, schools that repeatedly fail to meet performance standards are supposed to face severe sanctions, including replacing all the staff or reconstituting the school with new public or private leadership. In reality, states and districts are opting for lesser sanctions, such as adopting a new curriculum. This suggests a disconnect between Congress and state and local educators. Congress could reduce this discrepancy by legislating more moderate sanctions for all but the most egregious failure or by creating an enforcement mechanism for implementing sanctions.
Members of Congress have just begun discussions about whether to reauthorize NCLB this session or put off the task for another year. The challenge for lawmakers is to give schools and teachers the tools they need so they can make the law's promise a reality.
Brian Stecher is a senior social scientist at the RAND Corp, a nonprofit research organization. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This commentary originally appeared in Baltimore Sun on September 16, 2007.