The Economics of Educational Reform

With billions of dollars of aid being poured into education, Washington takes tighter control of the purse strings.

By Genevieve Marshall | Illustration by Dan Page

In the wake of No Child Left Behind, educators and politicians are attempting to inject some much needed innovation into America’s classrooms. Just how successful they can be is a much different—and complicated—story.

Not long after President George W. Bush took office in January 2001, the education bill titled No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, was passed with bipartisan support. 

The law enacted standards-based education reform based on the theory that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals could improve all student outcomes. States were required to develop assessments in math, language arts, and other basic skills and to test students across those areas. Failure to do so would mean losing federal funding. 

But NCLB quickly drew the ire of critics, who derided the mandate for strict standards and a propensity for required testing that demanded rote memorization instead of critical thinking. In addition, some argued, the system of rewards for well-performing schools exacerbated the issue of an uneven playing field by financially punishing already stressed and under-funded schools. 

With the election of Barack Obama in 2008 came new guidelines for school spending. The guidelines and limitations set by the President and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are pointing toward an administrative overhaul of the Bush-era education program. 

Those guidelines, however, do not come without strings. 

“The money is supposed to go toward education and evidence-based practices that have been shown to work,” says Gary Sasso, dean of Lehigh University’s College of Education. “If these stimulus monies are, in fact, used to promote these best practices, then we will begin to see better outcomes for our children.” 

He says the plans that most school districts have for stimulus dollars are worthy causes, but it remains to be seen if they would get the financial boost desperately needed in a recession, or have their state funding dropped accordingly. 

And therein lies the problem. 

Concern over the funds and how they would be allocated has reached a fever pitch in states across the country.

At stake in Pennsylvania is the state’s piece of a $4.35-billion competitive grant fund created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The “Race to the Top” fund, a part of the stimulus package allocated for education, was designed to reward states and school districts that adopt innovations President Obama supports. 

“The last time I looked, they have guidance up there [Washington, D.C.] and they have state applications, but they don’t have anything as of yet about how the money is being spent,” said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C. “We don’t know yet to what degree the money will be used for change and to what degree it will be used to blunt the effects of the recession.” So far, there have only been “very preliminary assessments” in how federal stabilization dollars have actually been spent, said Tom Lindsley, director of federal relations for the ACT, the fiscal agent for the 14-organization Data Quality Campaign based in Austin, Texas.

“The majority of the money so far that’s been released has been used to help maintain staffing or to preserve existing educational programs,” Lindsley said. “It’s not been traced to the kind of creative, innovative work folks were hoping the money would supplement.”

A change in the educational culture

Despite a rallying cry in certain circles to throw it out and start over, even NCLB’s detractors note that students have benefited under the policy. 

“One of the biggest positives to come out of No Child Left Behind was that it required schools to use evidence-based practices,” said Sasso, who also noted the importance of quality research. “You see evidence that the Obama administration values that aspect in the President’s comments during the early days of his term.”

"But there is a very simple, basic misunderstanding of how kids learn," he says. "There needs to be a significant change of culture in education, one that promotes programs that employ procedures that reflect how children learn. And we're just not there yet."

Sasso and other educational administrators suggest a renewed emphasis on critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and a focus on simple reasoning when presented with difficult challenges. However, they also stress that there higher order cognitive activities are not possible until a significant level of skill is attained in reading, mathematics, and science.

It's more than a "back-to-basics" approach, though. Many children are not functionally literate in math or science, and researchers like Sasso argue that, without the acquisitions of these skills, children cannot successfully engage in critical thinking and problem solving activities.

Representative Joe Sestak (D-Pa) agrees. A member of the House Committee of Education and Labor, Sestak supports the intent of No Child Left Behind, but argues that its reform proposals are "undermined by an implementation that is inflexible, unreasonable, and unhelpful to our educators."

Like Sasso, Sestak is a staunch advocate for accountability. Similarly, he strongly opposes how schools are being assessed. 

“Concerns have been expressed that too much weight has been placed on standardized tests and that student progress should be measured more fairly, comprehensively, and accurately,” said Sestak. “States should be allowed to gather multiple sources of evidence of student and school graduation rates and real-time classroom tests that allow teachers to adjust their instructions as necessary.” 

Using No Child Left Behind measurements, the U.S. Department of Education reported this year that 6,000 out of 95,000 public school across the country need corrective action because they have fallen short of testing standards.

It's a staggering number. Unfortunately, because it relies on testing, it's also a statistic that may severely misrepresent the challenges - and opportunities - facing many of America's underperforming schools.

Schools are judged to have made adequate yearly progress (AYP) only when a set percentage of students reaches an established benchmark at a given time, regardless of the range of proficiency standards set by each state. It's an accountability system that requires schools to compare different groups of students year to year, but does not allow state-to-state comparisons.

'States should be allowed to use growth models that can expand the focus and schools credit for the progress of low-performing and high-performing students," says the congressman. "Funding should be provided to help states design and establish the data systems used for growth models and to expand the use of data and technology in our schools."

Some schools are nevertheless continued to use programs that have no empirical support, such as whole language or "balanced" reading instruction, Sasso said. This is where Sasso believes the President could have a huge impact as her strives to further education reform.

"Essentially, Obama as it right when it comes to educational reform," says Sasso. "His focus on funding prevention and early intervention problems is a key. But he also takes it one step further by placing greater emphasis on empirically established measures that predict what students will have problems."

"We need to stop worrying so much about false positives, and instead focus our energy on the programs and interventions that have the biggest probability for success,” he says, drawing a clear link to early childhood methods like Response to Intervention. 

“We have no equivalent of a Food and Drug Administration for education,” he said. “There are a lot of journals out there that print articles that look like research, but they are not. That makes it difficult for legislators who are not trained in education to make decisions that will move schools forward.” 

Sasso sees room for improvement in several areas, the first of which he calls the “erroneous belief that all kids be brought up to average. Statistically, that doesn’t happen,” he said. “Achievement always follows a normal curve.” 

Secondly, it is a mistake that states were allowed to set their own competency levels under NCLB. “Some states were honest, and got punished, while some set the bar low and their students appear to be doing very well, when in fact they are not.” 

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the only nationally representative assessment of what American students know and an do in certain areas, is what the National Center for Education Statistics uses for its national report card. In recent years, the assessment has showed that fourth and eighth graders in states such as Mississippi who appear to be doing well on NCLB-related tests are actually performing below the national average, according to the NAEP tests.

Building momentum 

Educators and administrators are careful not to slow the momentum behind the Obama administration’s commitment to educational reform—an expensive venture, but one that has the overwhelming support of the K-12 community. However, they are wary of a process that could delay a renewed focus on research-based educational reform driven by Obama, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Dun an, and an army of educational allies. 

The Race to the Top program hinges on four policy principles, all of which are likely to serve as the framework for a reworking of NCLB, said Lindsley, of ACT.

"Quality teaching, robust data systems, interventions when students are not up to standard, and international benchmarks Lindsley said. “That’s what is going to drive it.

Beyond that, we will have to wait and see.” 

As for a timeline, the Obama administration “seems anxious” to have the new law in place by next year—probably the spring of 2010, he said.

“Congress is not going to get to it as long as health care and stimulus issues are eating up all their time,” Lindsley said. “The only reason they think they can do it quickly is because they have some consensus on the Hill and they have already had a whole series of discussions on reauthorization.” 

The hanging political dynamics in Washington, D.C. and state capitols may slow that conversation and give the administration a chance to focus its priorities. 

Edward Shapiro, director of Lehigh’s Center for Promoting Research to Practice, said he believes the Obama administration will take a more positive approach in terms of reinforcing outcomes, rather than a punitive approach when standards are not met. 

“For the first time in my 30 years in the field, there is such an emphasis … on high expectation for all kids,” Shapiro said. “The consequences for not meeting benchmarks are substantial. We hope the goal will be to maintain those high quality standards and high level of expectation with positive reinforcement.” 

Shapiro, with considerable expertise in early intervention, is hopeful that more funding will be directed to universal preschool and day-long kindergarten. “By focusing our efforts in the early years, down the road we will have fewer students with the more serious academic problems,” he said.

President Obama has already said as mu h. In a July speech at the U.S. Department of Education, Obama clearly tied the future of the nation’s economy to education, America’s “most valuable commodity.” 

“It is about finally getting testing right, about developing thoughtful assessments that lead to better results; assessments that don't simply measure whether students can use a pencil to fill in a bubble, but whether they possess basic knowledge and essential skills like problem-solving and creative thinking, creativity and entrepreneurship,” the President said. 

“This [Race to the Top] competition will not be based on politics, ideology, or the preferences of a particular interest group,” Obama added. “Instead it will be based on a simple principle— whether a state is ready to do what works.” 

Regardless of the changes Obama will make to NCLB, it appears that one of the most hotly debated education laws of all time is going to stay in some form—at least for the time being. 

“We certainly have the resources to drive educational reform and to look at every school-aged child differently,” says Sasso. “There’s simply no excuse not to go down this path.”