Why NCLB failed, and how states can avoid making the same mistakes under ESSA

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Oct 5, 2017

Although it may be hard to believe today, Congress passed the 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act with overwhelming bipartisan support. In response to the ruminating fear that America’s education system was no longer internationally competitive, NCLB set a moonshot goal to make all American students proficient in math and English language arts by 2014. But fast forward just a few years, and no states were managing to bring their schools anywhere close to the federal proficiency bar. Educators across the country were demoralized by the law’s harsh sanctions and bemoaned its myopic focus on standardized test scores. Why was this monumental law such a failure? Innovation theory holds both the answer to this conundrum and the key to ensuring that history does not repeat itself. My colleague, Julia Freeland Fisher, and I today published a paper that offers a set of frameworks and strategies that help state leaders manage innovation under the revamped law, the Every Student Succeeds

Why was this monumental law such a failure? Innovation theory holds both the answer to this conundrum and the key to ensuring that history does not repeat itself. My colleague, Julia Freeland Fisher, and I today published a paper that offers a set of frameworks and strategies that help state leaders manage innovation under the revamped law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

In 2006, Clayton Christensen published a paper that describes a variety of “tools of cooperation” that organizations can employ when they need to change course. There are four types of tools: culture tools like tradition and consensus-based decision making; leadership tools such as vision-setting and charisma; power tools such as threats and coercion; and managements tools like standard operating procedures, measurement systems, and incentive programs.

Management tools are effective levers of progress and improvement in contexts where people lack consensus about the direction of an organization, but at least agree on the basic processes for carrying out the organization’s work. For example, in a manufacturing company, the reasons factory workers come to work might be very different from those of senior managers. But, if both groups agree that certain manufacturing procedures will result in products with targeted levels of quality and cost, senior management can create training programs, quality controls, and pay structures that motivate workers on the factory floor to produce the desired outcomes. The critical assumption underlying management tools is that processes for achieving desired outcomes are clearly defined and widely agreed upon.

Congress passed NCLB with the assumption that management tools would induce the needed improvements in education as they have in other sectors. Policymakers believed that schools and teachers already had clearly defined and replicable practices for ensuring universal student proficiency. Schools just needed the right resources and incentives to motivate improvement along a well-defined path.

But this approach failed because specifiable, reliable, and widely agreed upon “standard operating procedures” for producing universal student proficiency do not exist. The individual differences among students, diversity of school communities, variety of pedagogical philosophies, and continual evolution of learning science provide few domains in which well-defined processes can produce consistent student achievement (early literacy perhaps being an exception). Quality education and teaching are complex. As a result, we are still a long way from reducing education to a set of standardized processes, and further still from seeing such processes gain popular consensus.

If management tools do not work in education, how should states proceed with the important work of school improvement under ESSA? In general, states need to encourage leadership tools for fostering school improvement. One opportunity for such tools is assessments. ESSA requires that states expand how they define school quality by measuring not only student proficiency, but also other measures such as student growth, and by developing multiple measures of student academic achievement, such as graduation rates and at least one state-selected “measure of school-quality.” With the right tools like vision, charisma, and negotiation, such assessments can be powerful rallying points for local leaders as they try to focus and accelerate their schools’ natural efforts to improve.

School improvement cannot come through policy mandates or incentive programs. Instead, innovation—born out of experimentation and adapting solutions for local contexts—is the only way we will solve many of education’s perennial challenges. And leadership tools are the best strategies for helping public schools innovate. 

To learn more, check out our paper outlining how states can leverage innovation theory to maximize their innovation efforts under ESSA

This post first appeared on The 74.

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.