For decades, federal policymakers have tried to implement
education reforms to improve opportunities for disadvantaged
students and ethnic-minority children. Since 2001, the focus of
federal policy has been the No Child Left Behind (NCLB)
legislation--which increased federal funding for K-12 education
programs and created new academic requirements for states and
public schools that receive federal assistance.
The focus of the sweeping federal law was accountability reforms
that required states to set state-level academic standards, test
students annually, and demonstrate that a growing population of
students was scoring "proficient" on state exams. Schools that
failed to meet state benchmarks are required to implement a series
of reforms intended to provide better learning opportunities for
students in danger of falling behind in low-performing schools.
After seven years, evidence suggests that No Child Left Behind,
like previous federal interventions, has failed to yield meaningful
improvements in students' learning. NCLB has also highlighted the
limits and unintended consequences of federal intervention.
As the 111th Congress considers the reauthorization of NCLB,
federal policymakers should review this experience and examine
other strategies for improving opportunities for disadvantaged
students and ethnic-minority children. One approach is to give
states and local policymakers greater authority to direct public
education in their jurisdictions.
Florida's experience with implementing aggressive education
reforms over the past decade suggests that states can
improve student learning. Before No Child Left Behind was enacted,
Florida implemented reforms to establish academic standards, test
students annually in core subjects, measure student progress, and
hold public schools and students accountable for results. These
systemic reforms also included creating new public and private
school-choice options, implementing instructional reforms and
intervention strategies to improve learning in core subjects, and
enacting new strategies designed to hire and retain effective
After implementing these education reforms, Florida's students
made dramatic progress on the annual National Assessment of
Educational Progress. The percentage of students who scored "basic"
or above on the fourth-grade reading exam increased by 32 percent
between 1998 and 2007, and these gains did not come at the expense
of high-achieving students. The percentage of Florida
fourth-graders who scored "proficient" or better improved by 54
percent, and the number who scored "advanced" (the highest level)
increased by 100 percent.
The greatest gains have been made by Hispanic and black
children. After a decade of strong progress, Florida's Hispanic
students now outscore the statewide averages for all
students in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Louisiana,
Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee,
and West Virginia on the 2007 fourth-grade reading test. Florida's
black students exceeded the statewide averages for all students in
Louisiana and Mississippi on the same exam, and are within striking
distance of overtaking several other statewide averages.
Florida's experience demonstrates that states can succeed in
implementing reforms that result in significant improvement in
student learning. Florida's successful reforms, however, are
threatened by perverse incentives created by the No Child Left
Behind Act. Since the NCLB requires states to demonstrate that all
students achieve proficiency on state exams by 2014, Florida and
other states have an incentive to lower academic standards or make
their tests easier to pass by lowering the "pass" thresholds in
order to demonstrate artificial progress and avoid labeling schools
as failing and implementing required reforms. A review of states'
academic standards over time suggests a national trend of states
lowering academic standards.
As policymakers review No Child Left Behind, Congress and the
Obama Administration should recognize three important lessons:
- Like previous federal interventions, No Child Left Behind has
failed to deliver meaningful improvement in student learning.
- Florida's experience demonstrates the opportunity for
state-directed education reform.
- NCLB's accountability regulations threaten to undermine state
Given these lessons, Members of Congress and state policymakers
should re-evaluate federal and state governments' current approach
to improving public education. At the federal level, Congress and
the incoming Administration should limit federal policymaking
authority and transfer greater power back to the state and local
levels--and they should end perverse incentives for states to
weaken state standards. State policymakers should learn from
Florida's success and implement systemic education reform to hold
schools and students accountable for results, expand parental
choice, and improve school and teacher effectiveness. This
combination of federal and state education policies can spur
meaningful improvement for children across the country.
Matthew Ladner, Ph.D., is Vice
President of Research at the Goldwater Institute. Dan Lips is Senior Policy
Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.