Why Education Reform Without "Straight A's" Is Not Real Reform

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Why Education Reform Without "Straight A's" Is Not Real Reform

May 8, 2001 17 min read
Krista Kafer
Krista Kafer
Former Senior Education Policy Analyst
Krista is a former Senior Policy Analyst in the Education department.

Congress will soon face a test of its capacity to change course when its policies fail to achieve what Americans need when it considers the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, the largest source of federal K-12 education funding. Congress can either continue to do what it has done for three decades--increase spending, programs, and regulations--or reform the educational system by including accountability and flexibility in the ESEA authorization bills now before the House and Senate (H.R. 1 and S. 1, respectively). If Congress fails to include provisions modeled on the "Straight A's" legislation passed by the House during the 106th Congress, it could deal a fatal blow to efforts by the President and others to give states and school districts the flexibility they need to turn around poorly performing schools.

Currently, there are hundreds of education-related programs across 39 agencies that cost taxpayers $120 billion a year.1 Moreover, despite the enormous increase in federal spending over the past decade alone, academic achievement still has not improved; the achievement gaps between poor students and their more affluent peers, and between minority students and non-minorities, remain unchanged or have grown.2

More tax dollars alone will not alter these facts, as the scientific research repeatedly demonstrates. Nevertheless, some lawmakers and special interests continue to push for more federal funding without attaching requirements for significant and results-oriented reform of the federal education system. Old programs--including some that have never been authorized--continue to get taxpayer money without evidence of results. New programs have been initiated without demonstration projects to show their value.

Congress has an historic opportunity to break this cycle and focus on results during the reauthorization of the ESEA. President Bush has proposed one way to do this in his education reform plan, No Child Left Behind: Establish a charter school option for the states and districts to enable them to refocus their federal funds on programs that will boost academic achievement. The state or district would enter a charter contract with the U.S. Secretary of Education by agreeing to raise student achievement in exchange for receiving full flexibility in using its share of federal ESEA dollars. Rather than participating in all the usual federal categorical programs, charter states or districts could determine their own program priorities to enhance achievement. They would change their focus from meeting rigid procedural requirements to results, and exchange onerous regulations and paperwork for accountability.

Such a provision was included in the Academic Achievement for All Act (H.R. 2300), also called "Straight A's," passed by the House in October 1999. Like the charter option described in President Bush's plan, a Straight A's approach would demand higher achievement--which current law does not--and eliminate the red tape and bureaucracy that gets in the way. It also would go further than the President's plan by requiring states to provide academic results disaggregated by socioeconomic status and to meet state goals for each of these groups. It also entitles states that make significant progress in eliminating achievement gaps to receive a "closing the gap reward."

As Congress moves forward in reauthorizing the ESEA, it should strive to give reform-minded states the ability to opt out of the old maze of federal categorical programs and forge their own results-oriented systems based on accountability and innovation. Congress should amend the ESEA with a strong Straight A's proposal similar to the one in H.R. 2300. Given the failure of the old ESEA programs to improve academic achievement, America has nothing to lose and everything to gain by embracing the Straight A's approach.


Based on a growing body of research evidence, it is clear that federal categorical programs are not making the grade. The disappointing findings on reading that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) recently reported, the conclusions of a National Research Council report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, and other studies can teach policymakers several lessons on education spending.

Lesson #1: Simply increasing federal funding does not improve academic achievement. Over the past two decades, per-pupil expenditures have increased nationwide by 22.8 percent in constant dollars--from $5,087 in 1979 to $6,251 in 1999; over the same time period, standardized test scores have remained flat.3 The recently released results of the 2000 NAEP on 4th grade reading show that average scores have not improved over the past eight years. Despite the over $120 billion in federal dollars spent on Title I programs for disadvantaged children since 1965, the achievement gap between rich and poor has not closed. On the NAEP test, for example, scores at the highest levels (the 75th and 90th percentiles) have improved while those from the lowest-performing students (the 10th percentile) have declined since 1992. Overall, 68 percent of 4th graders rated "Below Basic" or "Basic" in reading, 24 percent were "Proficient," and 8 percent were "Advanced."4

Evidence also suggests that further increasing funding for these programs will not make them produce results. As the National Research Council stated in Making Money Matter, a 1999 report commissioned by the Department of Education, "additional funding for education will not automatically and necessarily generate student achievement and in the past has not, in fact, generally led to higher achievement."5

The existence of high-poverty high-achieving schools shows that reform is contingent not on funding, but on the will for excellence.6 In just one year, for example, Bessemer Elementary School in Pueblo, Colorado, with over 75 percent of its students eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, saw scores rise remarkably on state exams--in reading from 12 percent passing to 64 percent, and in writing from 2 percent passing to 48 percent.7 Yet the teachers and students accomplished this without additional funding, reduction in class sizes, school construction, or the other "remedies" touted by liberals in Washington. Their secret: They devoted more time to classroom instruction and eliminated frivolous non-academic exercises.

Lesson #2: The proliferation of programs and regulations has not improved education. There are over 60 ESEA programs, a small slice of the hundreds of education-related programs spread out among federal agencies.8 Studies of many of these programs either do not exist or, to the extent that they do exist, suggest a lack of effectiveness. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), "federally funded programs have historically placed a low priority on results and accountability."9 For example, the first longitudinal study of Title I, the largest ESEA program, found little improvement in achievement despite decades of spending. A follow-up study on achievement from 1984 to 1997 found little change despite an additional $78 billion in spending.10

Looking specifically at NAEP scores, the research suggests that faddish new programs for class size reduction and technology have had little effect on achievement. Even as state and federal education technology programs were proliferating between 1984 and 1997, and the number of computers in America's K-12 schools increased eleven-fold to over 8 million, students using computers in class performed no better than their peers on NAEP reading tests.11 Efforts to reduce class size yielded similarly disappointing results, showing no correlation between smaller class sizes and higher NAEP reading scores. Students in the smallest classes (20 or fewer per teacher) did not attain higher scores than students in the largest classes (31 or more per teacher).12

Though many federal programs seem to have had only a negligible effect on education, some may actually have had a negative impact. For decades, the federal government has funded bilingual programs, many of which have been shown to have slowed the acquisition of English-language skills among limited English proficient children. In 1998, the failure rate in California prompted Californians to approve Proposition 203 to eliminate bilingual education. Since the ballot initiative went into effect, academic scores for California's limited English proficient students have improved.13

Despite such research findings, too many lawmakers year after year advocate increased federal funding for these programs. Just since the 107th Congress convened in January, lawmakers have introduced 96 bills to amend the ESEA, many of which increase funding for existing programs or authorize new programs. This approach failed to produce significant increases in achievement in the past and is unlikely to produce them in the future.


Congress should offer reform-minded states the option of directing their federal K-12 funds to programs that are designed specifically to improve student achievement. In exchange for a performance agreement that spells out how their plan will increase academic achievement for children across the socioeconomic spectrum, the states would be liberated from burdensome federal requirements that accompany current programs.

The President's charter states and districts proposal in No Child Left Behind would do just that. After entering into a contractual agreement with the Secretary of Education to establish specific rigorous goals for achievement, states and districts would receive full administrative flexibility over their federal education funds.14 Under the five-year performance agreement, a charter state would have to show that its students had reached specific achievement goals or face losing its funding and charter state status. During the 106th Congress, the House passed a Straight A's bill (H.R. 2300) that relied on this approach to reform, and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee included it in its ESEA reauthorization bill. Performance agreements are already in existence for other programs in other agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. There is every reason to include it in H.R. 1/S. 1, the reauthorization bills now before Congress.

Support from Educators. The Education Leaders Council (ELC), an organization of reform-minded state education chiefs who oversee approximately one-third of the nation's K-12 public school students, has asked Congress to support a Straight A's approach. In "From Good Intentions to Results: Transforming Federal Education Policy," the council states that

This year's ESEA reauthorization also should provide an opportunity for reform-minded states to go even further in pursuing their own courses--so long as they focus exclusively on boosting student academic performance and can show that their strategies in fact have boosted it.15

Support from State Officials. ELC members understand that some states will not pursue this option, yet they want the opportunity to enter into a Straight A's performance agreement with the U.S. Department of Education. Even non-ELC states have indicated an interest. Former Massachusetts Governor Paul Cellucci (R), for example, stated in a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman William Goodling (R-PA) during the 106th Congress that

the decisions about education are best made by those closest to the students and the classroom. At the same time, we have a need to establish accountability for demonstrated results of achievement. The "Straight A's Act" provides the support, flexibility and accountability which accomplishes that.16

With similar enthusiasm, Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn (R) wrote to Speaker Hastert that

Nevada would benefit greatly from this approach, and I stand ready to assist in any way to see that we have the opportunity to focus our federal money on improving student performance and state accountability.17


The ability to align federal funding with state and local needs and priorities is important. Under a Straight A's contract, a predominately rural state could focus spending in ways that address the specific needs of rural educators. A school district with low math scores could invest in research-based instruction to boost those scores. A state could reward its high-achieving Title I schools to enable them to expand. A district could initiate a comprehensive program to boost reading achievement or send its teachers to writing-instruction workshops. The only caveat is that these efforts would have to show real gains in academic achievement to continue receiving flexibility in spending federal dollars.

Such a results-oriented framework has worked well in the states. Texas, whose schools have begun to reduce the achievement gap on NAEP exams, uses testing and disaggregation of scores to ensure that all students are learning the skills they need. A report by the Council of Great City Schools highlights that the Fort Worth and Houston districts were among the most successful nationwide in reducing the achievement gap between white and minority students.18

In essence, a Straight A's approach does the following:

  • Emphasizes academic achievement rather than compliance with regulations, formulas, and applications.

  • Provides needed flexibility by focusing on academic outputs rather than inputs and giving states and districts the ability to manage their federal dollars and commingle them with their own funds to target their most pressing problem areas.

  • Sends more federal dollars into the classroom and allows states and districts to spend less time and money complying with federal paperwork requirements. Currently, 40 percent of state education administrators administer the funding they receive from the federal government--which is a mere 7 percent of their total education dollars. It should not be surprising that only 65 cents of every federal education dollar makes it into the classroom.19 Under Straight A's, because less administrative paperwork would be needed, more federal dollars would flow to the classroom.

  • Rewards states and districts for eliminating achievement gaps rather than for doing paperwork properly. A Straight A's approach should reward states or districts that meet the terms of their agreements and increase achievement among disadvantaged children.

  • Demands real accountability. Since a Straight A's approach would require states to test students and release the results disaggregated by socioeconomic background, parents would be able to determine whether their children are getting a good education and to hold their schools accountable if they are not. Education leaders would be able to identify deficiencies in the system and find ways to improve them.


Children should be the direct beneficiaries of education reform. During deliberations to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Members of Congress should strive to establish a system based on real accountability and academic performance. Making sure that a Straight A's provision is included as an amendment to the reauthorization legislation (H.R. 1 and S. 1) now before Congress would be a good way to accomplish this.

Real reform of the ESEA would not be complete without a Straight A's measure. It should at least be as strong as the provision passed by the House during the 106th Congress. Members should not weaken the proposal with additional regulations or paperwork burdens, or by adding arbitrary constraints, such as how many states could apply and how many programs could be placed in an agreement.

Specifically, a Straight A's measure should:

  • Enable all interested states to apply to become charter states. The strong support for the Straight A's bill during the 106th Congress shows that many governors and state education chiefs want flexibility. To ensure that no state is left behind, Congress should avoid imposing an arbitrary cap on the number of states that can participate.

  • Include no barriers to innovation. So that states can reap the benefits that flow from greater program flexibility, a Title I "hold harmless" provision should not be included. States that include Title I in their charter agreements should ensure that Title I students are in fact improving academically. Regulations that dictate how states should achieve the goals are irrelevant and could prevent the development of reforms that really help disadvantaged children learn. Members should also avoid adding additional paperwork requirements.

  • Include additional federal programs in the charter agreement. Congress should add other federal programs to the agreement between charter states and districts and the Secretary of Education from among the nearly 800 federal education-related programs in existence today, including vocational education. If, on the other hand, the pool of eligible programs were reduced, states would attain insufficient flexibility to address their needs.

  • Allow reform-minded school districts to participate. In states with governors who prefer the current regulatory maze of federal programs instead of a Straight A's approach, districts should be given Straight A's status. The superintendents of two large districts--Seattle and Chicago--told the 106th Congress that they would jump at such an opportunity.


Congress should take education policy off autopilot. Washington should stop funding programs without regard to what each state needs or what is most effective in increasing achievement. The existing morass of federal education programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is failing to improve education, especially for those who need help the most. Routinely increasing funding each year merely makes mediocre education and failure more expensive. Congress should move to a results-oriented system that demands clear, quantifiable achievement gains in exchange for greater freedom to administer federal dollars.

A Straight A's provision in the ESEA authorizing legislation would enable the states to apply federal money where it will be the most effective. Congress should include a clean Straight A's provision as an amendment to the bill--one that does not place arbitrary limits on the number of participants or programs or on how the programs are to be administered. The guiding principle should be that federal dollars increase achievement, not bureaucratic malaise.

Krista Kafer is Education Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.


1. Education at a Crossroads: What Works and What's Wasted in Education Today, report of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. House of Representatives, 105th Cong., 2nd Sess., July 1998.

2. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, "NAEP 1999 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance," NCES 2000469, August 24, 2000, at http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2000469

3. Andrew T. LeFevre and Rea S. Hederman, Jr., "Report Card on American Education: A State-by-State Analysis 1976-2000," American Legislative Exchange Council, April 2001.

4. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, The Nation's Report Card: Fourth-Grade Reading 2000, NCES 2001-499, April 6, 2001, at http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2001499.  

5. National Research Council, Making Money Matter (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999).

6. See Samuel Casey Carter, "No Excuses: Lessons from 21 High Performing, High Poverty Schools," at http://www.noexcuses.org/lessons/.  

7. Education Leaders Council, "From Good Intentions to Results: Transforming Federal Education Policy," Washington, D.C., Winter 2000.

8. Education at a Crossroads.

9. U.S. General Accounting Office, Federal Education Funding: Multiple Programs and Lack of Data Raise Efficiency and Effectiveness Concerns, GAO-T-HEHS-98-46, November 6, 1998, p. 17.

10. David Hoff, "Tracking Title I," Education Week, October 22, 1997.

11. Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D., "Do Small Classes Influence Academic Achievement? What the National Assessment of Educational Progress Shows," Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. CDA00-07, June 9, 2000.

13. Jorge Amselle and Amy C. Allison, "Two Years of Success: An Analysis of California Test Scores After Proposition 227," Institute for Research in English Acquisition and Development, August 2000.

15. Education Leaders Council, "From Good Intentions to Results."

16. Letter from Argeo Paul Cellucci, former governor of Massachusetts, Boston, Massachusetts, October 20, 1999.

17. Letter from Kenny Guinn, governor of Nevada, Carson City, Nevada, October 19, 1999.

18. Sharon Lewis, Jack Jebson, and Michael Casserly, "Closing the Achievement Gaps in Urban Schools: A Survey of Academic Progress and Promising Practices in the Great City Schools," Council of the Great City Schools, October 1999.

19. Education at a Crossroads.


Krista Kafer
Krista Kafer

Former Senior Education Policy Analyst