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Going backward in the debate about accountability and American education

June 16, 2014 7 minute Read by Mark Dynarski

Randi Weingarten and Linda Darling-Hammond recently asserted in a Huffington Post blog entry that the emerging challenges to implementing the Common Core standards are really about too much testing. They believe we need a “support and improve” model, citing California as the way forward. By contrast, they claim New York and its “test-and-punish” model is the example of what not to do.

There is little doubt that accountability is an important and complex issue that always will need refining. We need to acknowledge the strengths of accountability and design new approaches that build on them.  Yet we are going backward in this debate if evidence is selectively or incorrectly cited to claim that weakening accountability will improve school performance.

Let’s start with their argument that California and New York operate off two distinct models. The fact is, these two models do not exist. The approaches these states use are about the same.

Consider California. The authors note approvingly that the California budget creates the “Local Control and Accountability Program.” According to California’s education department, the program requires districts and schools to “identify goals and measure progress for student subgroups across multiple performance indicators.”

The first outcome on the list that districts can use is “performance on standardized tests.” The list also includes districts examining whether students are ready for college and proficient in English. Schools failing to meet goals are subject to “intervention.”

This program actually sounds like the next generation of No Child Left Behind. NCLB requires schools to meet goals, including on standardized tests, and pursue reforms if they persistently fail to meet them.

The authors also suggest that more spending on teachers is why California succeeds. But the story about California’s spending is a bit more complex.

As Weingarten and Hammond indicate, the state’s most recent budget allocated $1.25 billion for professional development of teachers. They point to these funds in explaining why California “supports” its educators.

Well, yes and no. The funds actually were set aside to support implementation of Common Core standards. And the state says that “Districts can decide for themselves how to use the funds to train teachers, buy new materials, or purchase technology, all with the purpose of implementing the Common Core State Standards.”

In short, the money is not simply for teacher development. Some of the funds are likely spent on teacher professional development, but that’s up to districts. What’s more, the support is only temporary.

Now, consider New York. What’s happening there indicates it and California share more similarities than differences in their accountability programs.

Look, for example, at New York’s spending. In the 2009-2010 school year, New York spent twice as much per student as California (roughly $20,000 versus $10,000). The highest paid teachers in New York have an average salary of $91,000. In California the highest paid teacher has an average salary of $72,000. And New York currently is “supporting” educators through its $700 million Race to the Top grant. When you look at that sum on a per-student basis, New York is spending more and is “supporting” educators more than California.

It also is not the case that New York and California are diverging on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, with California going up and New York sliding back. The evidence does not show that, as the first figure in the accompanying chart highlights.

It shows fourth grade reading scores for the nation, California and New York. California’s reading scores indeed have increased steadily since 2003, which coincides with when NCLB began to be implemented. New York’s scores were rising, declined after 2009, but returned to rising again. In the last couple of years, its scores rose at about the same rate as scores in California.

A similar pattern exists on eighth-grade math scores, which are another commonly examined indicator of state education performance. Here, too, the evidence shows California’s scores growing steadily since 2003, and New York having a bump downward around 2009 before returning to gains.

One more point here about scores: The authors argue that “support and improve” raised scores in California. But there is a problem with that argument, too.

The most recent NAEP scores were from tests administered in 2013. The first of two installments of added spending in California was given to districts in 2013. The second will be given in 2014.

In other words, at the time students were taking the 2013 NAEP test, the money had not even been fully distributed. Whatever changes are visible in NAEP scores certainly aren’t attributable to these funds, never mind the point that a one-time shot of spending is unlikely to influence scores much. California’s added spending happened too recently to explain the gains, which have been steady for the past ten years.

Nor is it true that testing has narrowed the curriculum of schools, which is another point the authors argue.

Common Core explicitly focuses on fewer topics in reading and math so that students will comprehend them better. Perhaps the authors are contending that subjects outside the core academic subjects like reading and math are being taught less. But that is not the case.

Hours in other courses are a larger proportion of student’s week than they once were. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, hours that students spend in school have increased since 1987 from 31.6 to 33.0. At the same time, hours they spend in courses like arts, computer and PE increased from 6.7 to 9.2.

And here’s one last problem with their piece. The authors argue that tests can’t measure “problem-solving, inquiry, team building, communication, collaboration, persistence, and other challenging skills.”

The fact is tests mostly test problem-solving skills. If a district wants to go beyond that, they can use tests to measure other skills. What’s more, required tests focus on reading and math because these subjects are the foundation of other kinds of learning. Few parents want to hear that their children are not proficient in reading or math but can collaborate well and build teams.

Accountability is very much a center-stage issue in education, and worth extensive discussion and debate from all points of view. Let’s bring together practitioners, policymakers, and researchers to identify new ideas and approaches that spend resources wisely.


Mark Dynarski is a Bush Institute education consultant and president of Pemberton Research in New Jersey,


Author

Mark Dynarski
Mark Dynarski

Mark Dynarski is founder and president of Pemberton Research, which focuses on understanding and utilizing research evidence in decision making.  Previously, he was vice president and director of the Center for Improving Research Evidence at Mathematica Policy Research. He also previously served as director of the What Works Clearinghouse at the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education, and as director and principal investigator of numerous education programs with a focus on at-risk children and youth. Currently he is a senior fellow (nonresident) at the Brown Center for Education Policy at the Brookings Institute.

Dynarski is an advisor to government agencies, philanthropies, and nonprofit organizations. He is well known for his expertise in econometrics and evaluation methodology, including the design, implementation, and analysis of evaluations of education programs using random assignment and quasi-experimental designs

Dynarski has published widely in peer-reviewed journals, including Educational Researcher, Educational Leadership, and Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk. He is also on the editorial boards of Effective Education and The Elementary School Journal.

Dynarski earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from the Johns Hopkins University and holds a B.A. in economics from the State University of New York at Geneseo. He also was a tenured professor of economics at the University of California, Davis, where he taught theory, statistics, and econometrics.

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