Despite facing the worst economic crisis in decades, the Obama administration has continued to push forward with a far-reaching education policy agenda. But moving forward effectively requires understanding what we now know about a number of key educational issues. Drawing on four decades of education research and its mission of bringing accurate data and objective analysis to education policy, RAND Education has created five policy briefs that summarize what is known about several key education topics and what that knowledge tells us about potential federal policymaking roles.
Accountability in Public Education
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) requires that all states hold districts and schools accountable for student performance based on test scores in reading and mathematics. The accountability system was designed to promote high achievement for all students and reduce the disparities in performance among different groups.
The research suggests that states, districts, and schools have worked hard to implement NCLB, leading to some positive changes in school practices and student performance. However, the research also identifies limitations in the NCLB approach to accountability, suggesting that policymakers further refine a national accountability system and commit resources for experimentation and evaluation to find better instructional methods, better strategies for allocating resources, and more-effective forms of governance.
Pay-for-Performance in K-12 Education
One proposal to improve teacher effectiveness involves shifting from a uniform salary schedule to a pay-for-performance (P4P) system-attaching financial rewards to student achievement on standardized tests, possibly in combination with other data, such as graduation rates or measures of educators' practices.
The research shows that P4P programs have led to higher student achievement in some cases, but the research is limited. Because knowledge about designing effective P4P programs is so limited, funding for further piloting and evaluation will be especially important. In addition, P4P must be combined with other reforms, including implementation of high-quality standards and curriculum materials, well-designed pre-service training and professional development, and assistance to educators to promote continuous improvement in educational practices.
Since their controversial inception in 1992, charter schools have become a widely used alternative to traditional public schools. Charter school laws and funding levels vary from state to state, and charter schools represent a wide variety of educational approaches-all of which make it difficult to generalize assessments of how such schools have performed.
Despite this, research on charter schools in a number of cities and states shows that they do have some positive effects on high school student attainment and do not produce the predicted negative effects, such as skimming white or higher-achieving students. The federal government can play an important role by supporting investigations that track individual students over time and examine outcomes beyond just test scores, enabling best practices to be identified that can improve charter school performance.
School Choice Participation
NCLB offers students in low-performing schools the opportunity to switch schools. But in 2006-2007, only about 1 percent of students in schools identified for improvement took the opportunity to transfer to better-performing schools, even though the option is generally being offered where required.
When it comes to low participation, research points mostly to the fact that many parents remain unaware of their children's school status and of the opportunity to choose, but it also suggests that many factors besides school performance influence parents' decisions. Although improved parent notifications may help, the power of school choice to induce educational improvement is limited now; while policymakers should still offer school choice, the research argues that they should focus efforts on reforms that improve performance in all schools.
High-quality preschool education is increasingly being seen as key to achieving NCLB goals. States have invested heavily in preschool programs, most of which target at-risk children, and the federal government has had a long-standing commitment to early care and education through a number of programs.
The research shows that high-quality preschool can provide important benefits, such as narrowing readiness gaps and later achievement gaps, but that access to high-quality preschool programs varies greatly. While many states are pursuing initiatives to address these shortfalls in quality and access, federal policy can supplement and complement state efforts.
J. R. Lockwood
J.R. Lockwood is a Senior Statistician in the Pittsburgh, PA office. His education research has focused on longitudinal modeling of student achievement, value-added models for estimating teacher effects, and experimental and quasi-experimental methods in educational evaluation. He has led two projects to develop enhanced statistical models for estimating teacher effects and to develop computational methods for implementing complex models with large datasets. He is also working on designing and analyzing two randomized experiments on teacher pay for performance. He holds a Ph.D. in Statistics from Carnegie Mellon University.
Read more about Mr. Lockwood »
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