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 school teachers.
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 accountability reforms.
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.