Education Equity Across The Nation
No Child Left Behind Criticized by Harvard Professor
In a scathing critique of the federal government’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Richard F. Elmore, the Gregory R. Anrig Professor of Educational Leadership at Harvard University Graduate School of Education, addressed “The Problem of Capacity in the (Re) Design of Educational Accountability Systems.” He delivered his remarks before a large audience attending The Campaign for Educational Equity symposium examining NCLB. In his research, Elmore spends considerable time in classrooms observing how schools respond to external pressures for accountability and how practitioners develop professional practices to improve instruction. He faults the federal education policy for not ensuring that low performing schools have adequate capacity for improvement and states and districts have resources to turn around failing institutions. There is currently no relationship between number of failing schools and resources to effect needed improvement. Many states have lowered standards but are still burdened with excessive case-loads. In Massachusetts, the number of failing schools has grown from 420 to 617, yet the state is equipped to impact 5 to 6 schools a year.
Elmore points to “a dramatic failure of design in NCLB as federal policy.” Annual tests with rigid limitations, fixed schedules of sanctions, and unclear definitions of proficiency have undermined flexibility needed to identify and improve failing schools. NCLB provides no empirical basis to support its requirements and the federal government shows no interest in providing such evidence. Testing and coercion are now the primary means of regulatory control, yet, “Coercion produces no effect.” The goals of government exceed capacity to produce desired outcomes resulting in “regulatory drift.” If it cannot fix the worse cases, NCLB loses credibility. “Good intentions do not result in greater capacity or better student performance,” explained Professor Elmore. “Performance is a function of capacity more than of compliance,” and schools vary greatly in their responses to external pressures and new policies. Investment in social capital to develop trust and strong internal working mechanisms is required. Relationships and support networks must be built between schools and communities. The need for differential treatment to achieve improvements must be recognized. Yet, explained Elmore, political considerations favor testing and “regulatory drift” rather than investment in social capital. With the practice of “blame-shifting,” if a school fails under NCLB, the institution can be blamed; if it succeeds, the elected official will take credit. There is “no electoral penalty for not investing in capacity.” Elmore sees “a major breakdown in political accountability” as “massive overinvestment in testing” and “massive underinvestment in capacity” produce a “growing imbalance between schools identified for improvement and the capacity to support them.”#