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No Child Left Behind? The Politics and Practice of School Accountability

reviewed by Philip I. Kramer - 2004

coverTitle: No Child Left Behind? The Politics and Practice of School Accountability
Author(s): Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West (Editors)
Publisher: Brookings Institution, Washington D.C.
ISBN: 0815770294, Pages: 340, Year: 2004
Search for book at Amazon.com

As the implementation of the 2001 reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act—commonly referred to as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)—begins, many Americans, including parents, students, educators, business owners, and politicians, are likely to debate the political and practical impact of the accountability legislation on our schools and the lives of our children. Anticipating that debate, Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance assembled a number of scholars in 2001 to discuss how NCLB would influence public education in this country. The result of those discussions is, No Child Left Behind? The Politics and Practice of School Accountability, an excellent compilation of essays and research edited by Harvard University’s Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West.


The book has three sections. Part One “examines the politics surrounding passage of the legislation, as well as the political challenges looming ahead for states and localities as they attempt to comply with the rules and regulations” (p. vii) of NCLB. In Part Two, “policy analysts explore the practice of school accountability, offering an early assessment of its effectiveness and valuable advice for state policymakers attempting to achieve compliance in the manner most beneficial for students” (pp. 2-3). Part Three “examines the issue of student accountability through the lenses of the minimum competency testing and course graduation requirement policies of the 1970s and 1980s” (p. 3), the accountability system in the Chicago school system, and the experiences of other nations with high stakes curriculum-based high school completion examinations.


Part One begins with Andrew Rudalevige’s chapter, “No Child Left Behind: Forging a Congressional Compromise.” Rudalevige explores the policy and the “legislative history of NCLB’s accountability provisions” (p. 24). Rudalevige explains, for example, that the accountability measures found in NCLB had their genesis during the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush, and Bill Clinton. According to Rudalevige, the bipartisan congressional compromise necessary to pass NCLB necessitated “appealing to ambiguity and deferring specific questions of function and funding” (p. 24), which, consequently meant that many of the important issues of NCLB “were postponed to the implementation process” (p. 25).


In the chapter by Frederick M. Hess, “Refining or Retreating? High-Stakes Accountability in the States,” coercive, high-stakes state accountability systems are compared to non-coercive, low-stakes standards-based state accountability systems. Hess documents the past 30 years of accountability, framing the current debate over NCLB in how resistance from opposition groups (e.g., educators and teachers’ unions) and support from proponents of accountability are likely to influence the effectiveness of NCLB.


In “Politics, Control, and the Future of School Accountability,” Terry M. Moe writes about the problems of control and politics and how these issues could adversely affect the success of school accountability. For Moe, the emphasis of NCLB is to place pressure—via control mechanisms such as potential sanctions for poor student achievement—on “district officials, principals, teachers, and students to change their behavior in productive ways” (p. 81). However, teachers and the unions, in particular, are resistant to the systems of accountability control because those systems are in direct conflict with the values of the teachers. Teachers and their unions, according to Moe, are threatened by control sanctions that give “them incentives to avoid full compliance” (p. 83). This problem is exacerbated because as a part of democratic government, schools are “subject to determination through the political process” (p. 90), a process that includes teachers and teachers’ unions interested in mitigating the possible impact of accountability sanctions.


In Chapter 5, “Rethinking Accountability Politics,” Jennifer Hochschild explores the local, regional, and national motivations that, over time, may have promoted “accountability in the public education system” (p. 108). First, Hochschild contemplates and dismisses possible explanations for America’s accountability movement, including the claim of a national educational crisis, our ambivalence as a nation regarding academic standards, and the influence of teachers and teachers’ unions. Next, Hochschild offers other, more plausible, explanations for the promotion of reform include the changing nature of our economy and the new demographic character of our country. Regardless of the initial impetus for the motivation of accountability, “once a few political actors prominently demanded higher standards and greater accountability, others joined in the movement. The political attractiveness of advocating coherence and high standards proved irresistible to politicians” (p. 119).


Eric A. Hanushek and Margaret E. Raymond begin Part Two with a chapter entitled, “Lessons about the Design of State Accountability Systems,” an examination of the intended and unintended consequences of state level accountability systems through the analysis of different characteristics of performance incentives across states. “The clearest story is simply that schools do respond to accountability systems. When such systems are introduced, schools appear from observed outcomes to react to the varying incentives” (p. 145). Hanushek and Raymond believe that “the vast majority of existing systems use performance measures that confuse changes in school performance with other factors that the school does not control—families, student abilities, neighborhood effects, and measurement effects” (p. 147).


In “Unintended Consequences of Racial Subgroup Rules,” Thomas J. Kane and Douglas O. Staiger analyze those factors outside a school’s control, such as race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, that have significant and often unintended consequences for performance. Kane and Staiger argue that in current accountability systems, using minority subgroup targets leads, for instance, to school failure, and increases negative attention on schools with large minority subgroups.


In Chapter 8, “Charter School Achievement and Accountability,” Tom Loveless examines the unique problems charter schools will face under NCLB such as dealing with student achievement that is significantly lower “in charters than in regular public schools” (p. 189). Loveless lists several problem areas that states should address to “integrate charters fully and fairly into accountability systems” (p. 190). These areas include collecting better charter school data and recognizing that the newness of many charter schools will affect test scores. Perhaps the biggest issue for charter schools, according to Loveless, is that “by defining the types of learning that schools will produce—and by establishing a system that measures progress toward those attainments—accountability reduces the autonomy of charter schools” (p. 192).


Julian R. Betts and Anne Danenberg, report on, “The Effects of Accountability in California.” Specifically, they discuss how school resources, changes in post-accountability achievement scores, and variations in student achievement in schools have influenced schools, children, and public policy. Their findings suggest that since the implementation of California’s Public Schools and Accountability Act of 1999, lower scoring schools have greater numbers of new teachers with minimum education and skills than schools with students who score higher on accountability-linked achievement tests. They also found that “the gaps between low-and high-scoring schools have widened for most measures” (p. 209) they examined. 


To begin Part Three of the book, Thomas S. Dee looks back at “The “First Wave” of Accountability”—the performance and graduation standards of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s—in order to offer insights into the current controversy surround the implementation of NCLB. Dee’s results demonstrate that there were both positive and negative effects of the early accountability systems. They included “the widely held perception that test-based standards were often weak because of political pressures” (p. 234) and the perception that “course graduation requirements created more binding, new standards for students and they were also largely immune to subsequent political design” (p. 234).  


Anthony S. Bryk, in, “No Child Left Behind, Chicago-Style,” and Brian A. Jacob, in, “A Closer Look at Achievement Gains under High-Stakes Testing in Chicago,” examine the Illinois School Reform Act of 1995, a high-stakes accountability law that “turned over virtually complete administrative control of the [Chicago] school system to the city of Chicago” (p. 242). Bryk presents evidence to suggest that despite the major overhaul of the Chicago public schools, the results of the accountability law “were modest at best” (p. 261). Moreover, he suggests that without a very careful inspection of the data from Chicago, and arguably from other accountability experiences, it would be easy to be “misled and draw erroneous conclusions about the actual efficacy of any reform initiative” (p. 261). Jacob, on the other hand, argues that there might have been a significant increase in student achievement scores. He demonstrates how this difference in understanding could have occurred through an item-level analysis of examination sub-scores.


Finally, Ludger Wößmann discusses “Central Exit Exams and Student Achievement: International Evidence,” and concludes that external exams, where “neither teachers nor students know in advance the specific questions contained in the exams” (p. 293), “are a powerful accountability device” (p. 317). In fact, according to Wößmann, external exams offer a strong incentive to students, teachers, parents, and school administrators to place “additional emphasis on educational achievement” (p. 317).


The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 will have a major impact on public education in the United States for many years to come. No Child Left Behind? The Politics and Practice of School Accountability, edited by Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West, is an excellent book to help all public education stakeholders understand NCLB’s origins, politics, and problems, as well as the possible direction NCLB could take during the next reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 8, 2004, p. 1623-1627
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11298, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 11:56:57 AM

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About the Author
  • Philip Kramer
    The University of Texas at El Paso
    E-mail Author
    PHILIP I. KRAMER is an assistant professor at The University of Texas at El Paso. He has a joint appointment in the departments of educational leadership and teacher education. His research interests include assessment, accountability, policy, the scholarship of teaching and learning, and critical thinking. Dr. Kramer teaches graduate courses in research methodology and higher education.
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