Accountability for NCLB

A Report Card for the No Child Left Behind Act

By Brian M. Stecher, Georges Vernez, and Paul Steinberg

Brian Stecher is associate director of RAND Education. Georges Vernez is a senior social scientist at RAND. Paul Steinberg is a RAND communications analyst.

It has been nine years since the U.S. Congress passed, with bipartisan support, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), a landmark in primary and secondary education. Aside from setting the ambitious goal that all students would be proficient in reading and mathematics by the year 2014, NCLB set the country along a determined path of judging schools by student outcomes; providing strong accountability with “teeth” for enforcement; using parental choice (and the marketplace as a whole) to drive improvement; measuring performance of ethnic, racial, socioeconomic, and other subgroups; requiring stronger teacher qualifications; and basing improvement efforts on research-based practices.

“Student proficiency” and “highly qualified teachers” are defined differently in every state of the nation.

Much has been said about NCLB, but as Congress is likely to consider reauthorizing the law upon reconvening in January 2011, what lessons can legislators draw from what has happened over the past nine years? We have analyzed the progress made as a result of the law and studied how school administrators, teachers, and parents have responded to it. Based on these observations, we offer a set of recommendations for changing the law if it is reauthorized.

Progress Made

Overall, NCLB has succeeded in establishing a nationwide school and teacher accountability infrastructure that focuses on student outcomes and emphasizes improving the lowest-performing schools and students. However, the flexibility that NCLB provided to the states has resulted in the establishment of 52 different accountability systems — one for each state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico — each with different academic standards, different student proficiency levels, and different teacher requirements. These variations mean that “student proficiency” and “highly qualified teachers” are defined differently in every state of the nation. Voluntary efforts now underway in some states to adopt national “common core standards” could ameliorate the situation, but the outcome of these efforts is yet to be determined.

Parents often choose not to participate either because they are satisfied with their children’s school or performance, because they do not want to disrupt their children by switching schools, or because of the inconvenience of the alternative schools offered.

Progress to date in the share of students who are proficient in reading and mathematics suggests that the goal of having 100 percent of the nation’s students proficient in these two subjects by 2014 will not be met. At the same time, the law’s narrow focus on these two academic areas and the states’ reliance on similarly narrow tests have resulted in unintended outcomes, such as narrowing the school curricula, encouraging teachers to focus on some students at the expense of others, and discouraging the development of higher-thinking and problem-solving skills.

Although the number of students taking advantage of the law’s provisions for school choice and for supplemental educational services has increased over time, the participation rates of students eligible for either option remain low. Part of the reason for low participation is administrative (sometimes related to inadequate notification to parents of their options), and part of the reason is the preference of parents. Parents often choose not to participate either because they are satisfied with their children’s school or performance, because they do not want to disrupt their children by switching schools, or because of the inconvenience of the alternative schools offered.

But parental knowledge about the provisions of the law, about the performance of schools, and about their school choice options remains uneven. A majority of parents still do not know whether their children’s schools need improvement or not. When parents are made aware of the situation, they are often notified of their choice options too late to make an informed decision about transferring their children to a different school.

As intended by the law, districts and schools identified for improvement have engaged in a flurry of improvement activities, including the implementation of the interventions and corrective actions mandated by the law (see the table). However, the states typically have not implemented the most severe restructuring interventions for the chronically lowest-performing schools.

Successive Interventions Await Schools That Fail to Make “Adequate Yearly Progress”

Stages of Intervention for School Improvement Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001

If school misses “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) for two consecutive years

Identified for Improvement,
Year 1
Identified for Improvement,
Year 2
Corrective Action Restructuring

All interventions must occur simultaneously:

  • Offer parents school choice
  • Develop improvement plan
  • Notify parents
  • Allocate 10 percent of federal Title I funds for professional development
  • Receive technical assistance from districts and states

If school misses AYP for an additional year


Additional intervention:

  • Offer supplemental educational services (tutoring, remediation, or other academic instruction) given by a state-approved provider

If school misses AYP for an additional year


Additional interventions (one or more of the following):

  • Implement research-based curriculum or instructional program
  • Decrease school’s management authority
  • Extend school day or school year
  • Restructure school’s organization
  • Replace staff relevant to school’s low performance
  • Appoint an outside expert

If school misses AYP for an additional year


Additional interventions:

Phase 1 — Develop restructuring plan

Phase 2 (one or more of the following):

  • Reopen school as a charter school
  • Replace all or most staff
  • Contract with another entity
  • Yield to state takeover of school
  • Conduct other major governance restructuring

SOURCE: Reauthorizing No Child Left Behind: Facts and Recommendations, 2010.

NOTES: In schools identified for corrective action or restructuring, the district must also continue to offer school choice and supplemental services. A school exits school improvement, corrective action, or restructuring status only if it makes AYP for two consecutive years.

The law mandates these interventions only for schools and districts that receive federal Title I funding, but more than half of all public elementary and secondary schools in the United States receive some Title I funds. Since 1965, the U.S. Department of Education has been disbursing these funds to schools and districts with high percentages of students from low-income families. States can also extend these interventions to other schools, using state resources.

In terms of federal funding, there was an overall 51 percent increase (in constant dollars) in Title I appropriations between 1997–1998 and 2004–2005, but the share of Title I funds going to the highest-poverty districts remained essentially the same. An increasing share of the total Title I funds over these years was allocated to district-managed services (from 9 to 21 percent), whereas a decreasing share was allocated to individual schools (from 83 to 74 percent).

Highly qualified teachers should be offered incentives to teach in low-performing schools.

Title I funding added more dollars per low-income student to elementary schools than to middle or high schools. For elementary schools, the funding also added a significantly higher amount of personnel resources per low-income student to the schools with the lowest poverty rates than to the schools with the highest poverty rates — $825 versus $449, respectively.

Changes Recommended

If Congress reauthorizes NCLB, it should consider making the following changes to the law:

Hemant Mehta teaches his honors Algebra II/Trigonometry class at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Illinois.


Hemant Mehta teaches his honors Algebra II/Trigonometry class at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Illinois, on May 4, 2010. Some education leaders want to standardize the way the next generation of U.S. teachers is trained. Today, the nation’s more than 1,200 teachers colleges and more than 100 alternative ways to obtain a teaching certificate offer more than 1,000 different approaches to teacher education.

  • Promote more-uniform academic standards. In giving states the flexibility to set their own standards, the expectation was that states would set high standards. But this expectation has not been met in some places, leading to substantial inconsistency across the states, putting students in some states at a disadvantage in preparing for college and careers, and serving the country ill with regard to bolstering economic competitiveness. Setting and requiring nationwide standards could achieve greater consistency across states. If current voluntary efforts among the states bear fruit, that will signal a significant accomplishment; if not, other options should be considered, including requirements for common standards.
  • Promote more-uniform teacher qualification requirements. As is true for academic standards, the states have set highly variable requirements for “highly qualified” teachers. Minimizing these variations across states is desirable for the same reasons as those for academic standards.
  • Set more-appropriate improvement targets. Given the rate of progress in student achievement since NCLB was implemented, its goal that 100 percent of the nation’s students should be proficient by 2014 not only is unattainable but also might discourage principals and teachers in their improvement efforts. Instead of a proficiency target, schools and teachers should be held accountable for the learning growth of all students. Alternative accountability approaches that incorporate such growth without imposing the current targeting structure should be explored.
  • Broaden the measures of student learning. The fact that states rely mostly on multiple-choice tests to measure student learning in reading and mathematics discourages the development of the higher-thinking and problem-solving skills that are essential for economic viability and also shortchanges subjects other than math and reading. Broadening the test measurements to include open-ended answer formats, such as written responses to math questions, and holding schools accountable for subjects other than math and reading would be desirable. In particular, schools should be held accountable for achievement in history, social studies, and science, while schools should be asked to report on student participation in music, art, health, and physical education.
  • Give teachers incentives to teach in low-performing schools. Teachers in schools that have been identified for improvement continue to be less likely to be highly qualified than are teachers in schools not so identified. Given the critical role that teachers play in student learning, highly qualified teachers should be offered incentives, such as higher salaries or lower class loads, to teach in low-performing schools.
  • Allow for a more flexible system of interventions. The current system of interventions for schools identified for improvement is rigid and mechanical. A more flexible and effective system would allow states and districts to identify and prioritize the schools most in need and to design consequences to address their particular needs. A number of states and districts use independent “inspectorates” to conduct field reviews of schools to provide more complete information about local practices and improvement options. This approach might be expanded further.
  • Broaden staff development. Staff development now focuses on academic content and effective instruction, but improvement and major restructuring in schools will not take place on a large scale until the problem-solving capacity of school leaders and teachers throughout the nation is increased. Therefore, staff development should be broadened to include the identification of teaching and learning problems, the development of interventions geared to those problems, and the use of the tools and practices required for effective implementation of those interventions.
  • Enhance school choice. Few parents have taken advantage of the option to move a child from a school identified for improvement to a school not so identified. States could take steps to ensure that parents learn of their options in a timely fashion. But some choices reflect simply a parental decision not to change schools. Moreover, many districts have no schools available for transfer. Policymakers need to recognize the limited benefits of school choice. Meanwhile, efforts for school improvement should focus on all schools while continuing to offer school choice. Another way to enhance school choice would be to reverse the order in which the instructional options are now made available, offering supplemental educational services first and school choice second.
  • Commit more resources to developmental activities, especially for students with special needs. Schools and districts frequently report that they do not receive the technical assistance they need to improve learning among students with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency. Resources should be committed for experimentation to find better instructional methods and programs for these students and for all students; such experimentation might also focus on identifying better strategies for allocating the resources provided by the federal government.

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