The XX Factor

Are Obama’s Proposed Changes to No Child Left Behind Any Good?

Yesterday’s New York Times piece suggested that the adminstration might revisit the way what’s called Title 1 money is allocated under No Child Left Behind. If you’ve seen how those funds are currently distributed, and sometimes squandered, you know this is a good idea in principle. But I am uneasy about what the Obama administration might substitute for the status quo.

First, the problem. Here is a typical scene in the exhibit hall at a principals’ convention. The vendor, selling some sort of educational (or “educational”) material, asks an approaching administrator, “Are you a Title I school?” If told yes, cartoon dollar signs flash in his eyeballs. As part of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Title I schools-so designated because they have a certain share of students living in poverty-get lots of extra money. I once watched teachers at a Title I school urgently page through catalogs the day of the deadline to spend their money-the mariachi band would count for parent involvement requirements; Dr. Seuss hats were for a reading event. I felt bad for schools nearby with a few too few poor kids to share in these riches-not because of hats and bands, but because the bulk of this money funds teachers, enabling small-group interventions and collaboration time that might help students excel.

In the Times piece, analysts suggest the White House wants to stop allocating Title I money simply based on the number of poor children. OK, that seems sensible. But a quote from a think-tank director caught my eye: “They want to upend that scheme by making states and districts pledge to take actions the administration considers reform, before they get the money.” Now “the administration considers reform” a small set of approaches , which it is pushing via a $4 billion grant program called Race to the Top. Forty-one states and D.C. have applied for the money by vowing to take certain required steps: welcoming charter schools, creating systems to track student data, adopting common standards, and recasting teacher evaluation systems, in part by factoring student test scores into decisions such as tenure or pay.

You may like some of these ideas, you may not like others. The question is whether they will help children, and the answer is that we don’t know. In the State of the Union, President Obama said he would only invest in “reform that raises student achievement.” But while the reforms required for these grants may be promising, they are not proven to raise student achievement. (See more about this on my blog .) I like the idea of paying good teachers more, for example, but there is no comprehensive research showing that it improves learning, and the charter research is mixed. It’s one thing to encourage pet programs in a grant competition for a one-time pot of money; it’s another to write them into a law that could last a decade.

“We only reward success,” Obama said last week. The problem is, when it comes to our classrooms, we have done a terrible job at identifying the ingredients for success, and we shouldn’t pretend that we have done otherwise.