Fulfilling the Promise of Educational Accountability

By Nelson, Sarah W.; McGhee, Marla W. et al. | Phi Delta Kappan, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Fulfilling the Promise of Educational Accountability


Nelson, Sarah W., McGhee, Marla W., Meno, Lionel R., Slater, Charles L., Phi Delta Kappan


Widely regarded as the model for NCLB, the Texas education reforms have had their share of unintended consequences. The authors argue that examining those problems will suggest the changes that need to be made in both reform agendas.

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WHEN No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was signed into law, the President and secretary of education promised sweeping reform of the American education system. In the five years since the law took effect, U.S. public schools have, indeed, seen remarkable change. However, not all of the changes have been well received. Policy makers, scholars, and practitioners alike are increasingly voicing concerns about this comprehensive piece of legislation.

In fact, legislatures in 47 states have taken action to mitigate the effects of NCLB. (1) These legislative responses range from petitioning the U.S. Department of Education for waivers to refusing to comply with some or all aspects of the law. Indeed, the Connecticut legislature went so far as to file a lawsuit challenging the legality of NCLB and the use of the policy to guide distribution of federal entitlement funds. (2) Even Texas, widely considered the birthplace of NCLB, (3) showed resistance: its commissioner of education refused to adhere to the NCLB rule that limits to 1% the number of students who may be exempted from testing because of learning disabilities. Rather than comply with this mandate and label schools that exceeded the limit "low performing," the Texas commissioner gave acceptable accountability ratings to more than 900 schools with exemptions greater than 1%. (4)

In response to this growing resistance, political and professional groups are calling on Congress to make changes to NCLB policy. Recently, a special task force of the National Conference of State Legislatures issued a comprehensive report documenting the findings of a 10-month study of the effects of NCLB. The report includes recommendations for significant changes to the law. (5) Similarly, the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals issued a joint statement indicating support for the goals and intent of NCLB but blasting the policy for being an unfunded mandate that is "unworkable" in its present form. (6)

As scholars and former public school practitioners, we, too, believe that modification of NCLB is warranted. However, our call for change stems not so much from what has occurred in the five years under NCLB as from what we have learned in more than 15 years of work within the Texas accountability system. As the state whose reform effort served as the model for NCLB, Texas has much to offer in the debate about school accountability. In particular, examining policies and practices that have worked well in Texas along with those that have proved problematic may shed light on necessary changes for NCLB.

What we offer here are the history and lessons of accountability in Texas from the perspective of four individuals who worked within the system from the beginning: 1) the former Texas education commissioner who was one of the architects of the initial reform movement, 2) a former school district superintendent, 3) a former school principal, and 4) a former teacher. When we're asked, as we often are, whether Texas education reform has turned out as we expected, our consensus answer is, "Yes and no."

The Vision

In the early 1990s, Texas set out on a journey of education reform. Led by the state commissioner, this effort was noteworthy in that it challenged two long-held assumptions about education reform. First, whereas all education reforms naturally aim to improve student achievement, the Texas model was unique in focusing on improvement for each student rather than aggregate groups of students. That is, the Texas model was built on the notion that every student deserves to be well educated. Consequently, the state has a responsibility to provide an education system that gives each student, regardless of where he or she attends school, a high-quality education. …

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