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Studies assess impacts of Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind reforms
‘Implementation breakdowns’ occur as schools wrestle with accountability requirements

| 11 September 2008

  President Bush signing the No Child Left Behind law.
Schools vary widely in their conformance to the law signed by President Bush in January 2002.
 

Teachers across the nation are redoubling their efforts to lift students’ achievement, in keeping with increased emphasis on performance standards by state and federal governments. At the same time, however, they report declining morale under the stiff accountability policies that go hand-in-hand with such emphasis, as well as in response to the inflexibility of state-mandated curricula.

These fresh findings are the fruit of seven new studies published in Strong States, Weak Schools: The Dilemmas of Centralized Accountability, a volume edited by Bruce Fuller, a Berkeley professor of education and public policy, and Emily Hannum, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. The studies, released as part of the prestigious Research in Sociology of Education series edited by Fuller and Hannum, detail “how local educators are earnestly responding to the unrelenting pressure of top-down accountability policies, often with little support from above,” Fuller says.

A dominant finding is that school-by-school responses to President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, enacted in 2001 to give teeth to a trend toward standards-based pedagogy already making headway in secondary education, remain eclectic and haphazard. Local school boards charged with executing the centrally established requirements of the law vary widely, for example, in the attention paid to enforcement of curricular standards and levels of aid provided to low-performing students.

One study tracked 2,355 teachers and 259 school principals in California, Georgia, and Pennsylvania — states with differing accountability policies — as they interpreted No Child policies between 2004 and 2006. RAND Corporation researchers found that teachers adapted by covering more curricular material during the year, tailoring teaching to the needs of individual children, and focusing on facts covered in standardized tests.

But teachers’ responses to state rules varied widely, according to the RAND study. Two other studies in Strong States, Weak Schools corroborate how many local boards and principals knew little about accountability efforts, or failed to mobilize key tools, such as intensive teacher training or new data on student performance, mandated under No Child reforms.

“Even when principals place heavy emphasis on activities such as identifying struggling students or emphasizing test preparation, teachers often adopt inconsistent practices, displaying considerable autonomy,” says Laura Hamilton, the senior scientist at RAND who led one research team.

Large majorities of teachers in California, Georgia, and Pennsylvania were demoralized by one effect of accountability programs, like No Child, Hamilton found: Ideas and topics not covered on centrally set standardized tests had to be ignored by teachers.

Overall, the results point to implementation breakdowns that may explain why reading scores on periodic national exams have barely budged since congressional approval of the No Child act and its implementation in 2002, according to the investigators. Math scores have inched upward, by contrast, but at a slower rate than gains seen during the 1990s.

Progress is especially slow in moving high-school principals to focus their teachers on common learning goals, according to one study in this book. Another study details the sluggish pace at which many high schools are confronting disappointing pass rates on exit exams, increasingly required of students before they can receive a diploma.

Still, this new collection offers some good news, according to editor Fuller: Overall, the research teams found, “accountability pressures can move teachers to focus on lifting low-achieving students, especially when they draw on individual pupil data and devise inventive pedagogical practices.”