UC Berkeley News
Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

New studies assess impacts of "No Child" reforms

– Teachers across the nation are redoubling efforts to lift children's achievement but report declining morale under stiff accountability policies and state-mandated curricula, according to seven new studies published today (Wednesday, Aug. 20) by University of California, Berkeley, scholars and associates.

School-by-school responses to President Bush's No Child Left Behind law remain eclectic and haphazard. Local school boards vary wildly in the attention paid to curricular standards and aiding low-performing students, researchers said. These fresh findings come on the eve of congressional debate over the future of the No Child act following November elections.

The studies appear in "Strong States, Weak Schools: The Dilemmas of Centralized Accountability," a volume edited by Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley professor, and Emily Hannum, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania. The studies are being released as part of the prestigious "Research in Sociology of Education" series, published since 1965.

This latest volume "details how local educators are earnestly responding to the unrelenting pressure of top-down accountability policies, often with little support from above," Fuller said.

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," said 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 the 2001 congressional approval of the No Child act and its implementation in 2002, according to the investigators. Math scores have inched upward 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 a study by Tom Luschei, a professor of education at Florida State University and researcher Gayle Christensen at the University of Pennsylvania. They said that this may help to explain why few gains in test scores or graduation rates have been observed inside high schools in recent years.

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.

Meanwhile, UC Berkeley researchers Melissa Henne and Heeju Jang tracked local educators in 245 California elementary schools serving both Latino and white students in 2004, discovering that achievement gaps narrowed when principals focused on achievement and supported pedagogical innovations by their teachers.

"When district leaders emphasized that boosting learning is the paramount priority, and principals motivated their teachers, we found smaller achievement gaps between ethnic groups," Henne said.

This new collection of evidence offers some good news, editor Fuller said. The research teams overall found that "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," he said.

The studies appearing in the new volume stem from original research supported, in part, by the U.S. Department of Education and the California-based Hewlett and Noyce foundations.