Standards-Based Reform and the Poverty Gap: Lessons for No Child Left Behind
reviewed by Richard D. Kahlenberg - June 30, 2008
Title: Standards-Based Reform and the Poverty Gap: Lessons for No Child Left Behind
Author(s): Adam Gamoran (Ed.)
Publisher: Brookings Institution, Washington D.C.
ISBN: 0815730330, Pages: 340, Year: 2007
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The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 promised the moon100% of students, including the most economically deprived, would become proficient in math and reading by 2014. Seven years later, NCLB has become what one of the bill's key sponsors, Democratic Congressman George Miller, calls "the most negative brand in the country." What went wrong? And how can the legislation be improved to truly reduce the "poverty gap" in achievement?
A new volume edited by Adam Gamoran, professor of sociology and education policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, sheds important light on what should be done. The chapters, written by a diverse group of scholars that includes sociologists, economists, education professors, and public policy experts, are drawn from a February 2006 conference. Because NCLB remained relatively new at the time, many of the chapters report on studies conducted on the efficacy of older state-level policies that mirror what NCLB intends to do.
Gamoran's opening chapter sets the tone for challenging conventional wisdom by focusing on the achievement gap by economic status, rather than by race. He notes that while disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups have made progress over the last 40 years, the gap between low income and more advantaged peers has "remained stable and wide throughout that period"
In examining what can be done to narrow the poverty gap, the volume begins with the issue of teacher quality. One of the main goals of the act was to improve the overall quality of the teaching profession and particularly the quality of teachers in high poverty schools. The good news is that the system of accountability in NCLB is unlikely to drive good teachers out of the profession entirely, according to a study by Meredith Phillips and Jennifer Flashman. The bad news, according to a paper by Laura Desimone, Thomas Smith and David Frisvold, is that NCLB-type policies adopted at the state level did not result in overall increases in teacher quality.
Another key effort aimed at narrowing the poverty gap provides the right of students in failing schools to transfer to better performing public schools and to receive after school tutoring. Both have proven disappointing. According to an analysis by George Farkas and Rachel Durham, supplementary educational services as currently designed are unlikely to have achievement benefits for students. And Paul Hill reports that less than 2% of students eligible to transfer did so in 2003-04.
The volume would have benefited from further discussion of why students don't transfer. One important factor, highlighted in a forthcoming paper by Amy Stuart Wells and Jennifer Jellison Holme, may be that parents in urban districts don't have many good transfer options available to them. Their paper outlines positive results when low income and minority children are given a chance to attend middle class suburban schools. For decades, research has found that low-income students perform better in middle-class schools, and NCLB's failure to facilitate those types of transfers is a major flaw in the legislation.
Of course, the promises of socioeconomic school integration may be truncated by the fact that low income students in more affluent schools are likely to be resegregated into the least demanding classes with the weakest teachers. But the chapter by Desimone et al finds that disadvantaged students in wealthier schools had better qualified teachers than advantaged students in high poverty schools.
Everyone agrees that in urban areas, the lack of good transfer options is a serious problem. While conservatives have argued that students should be provided with vouchers to attend private schools, Congress should take a serious look at the inter-district public school choice option.
One of the other big issues Congress will face when NCLB is renewed is whether to include consequences for students. As Andrew Porter notes in his chapter, NCLB currently has a strange lack of symmetry: "schools are held accountable but not students" (p. 317). Albert Shanker, the legendary head of the American Federation of Teachers, noted the illogic of any system which tells students that if they fail a test, they won't be punished, but their teachers will be.
Having said that, evidence in this volume suggests that traditional hammer-like approaches to student accountability have mixed results. Robert Hauser, Carl Frederick and Megan Andrews find retention policies are associated with increased dropout rates and usually don't increase academic achievement. Likewise, high stakes high school exit exams increase dropout rates, particularly for African Americans, according to a chapter written by Thomas Dee and Brian Jacob. On the other hand, Hauser et al. say it is possible that state accountability regimes have weakened the link between social background and retention, suggesting, perhaps, that decisions are becoming more objective. And Dee and Jacob found that having passed a rigorous exam appears to increase the wages of blacks and Hispanic women.
Given these findings, what is to be done? While giving up on student consequences all together seems wrong, for the reasons Porter and Shanker suggest, and draconian forms of accountability may be inappropriate as the Hauser and Dee papers make clear, one compromise would be to provide students who pass tests with a rigorous diploma, and those who don't with a different type of diploma.
Looking forward, the future of NCLB remains uncertain. As Tom Loveless's chapter notes, while the legislation was overwhelmingly supported by Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike when passed in 2001, by 2005 public support broke sharply along partisan lines. Republicans favored NCLB in one poll by 30 points while Democrats opposed it by 18 points. Some commentators, such as the Economic Policy Institute's Richard Rothstein, are declaring NCLB dead.
There are clearly major problems with the legislationones discussed in this volume and other problems barely touched upon: the low quality of content standards and tests adopted by states, the narrowing of the curriculum to tested subjects, the variation in the rigor of state performance standards, the excessive focus on "bubble" kids who are on the cusp of becoming proficient to the detriment of other students. But it would be a mistake to abandon standards-based reform altogether. In 1993, when the movement was in its infancy, Al Shanker predicted it would take decades to get standards-based reform right. Adam Gamoran's sober and even-handed edited volume will help guide legislators in the hard work of accomplishing that mission.