What "No Child Left Behind" Can Teach Higher Ed
Over the last two decades, Congress has taken bipartisan action to increase federal oversight in our country’s K-12 system through the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the subsequent Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). However, when it comes to higher education, we’ve seen no comparable effort to hold institutions responsible for the success of their students.
To better understand how Congress can learn from NCLB’s past to strengthen the quality of our higher education system in its upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), Third Way hosted a conversation on July 12, 2018 around key lessons learned from the NCLB era for higher education. The event served as a spinoff of a new report on this topic from Third Way, as well as a paper for Third Way on how to think about and use subgroups in higher education authored by Sarah Bolton, former Democratic Education Policy Director for the Senate HELP Committee.
The event featured opening remarks followed by a panel discussion with Sarah Bolton, former Democratic Education Policy Director for the Senate HELP Committee, Roberto J. Rodríguez, President and CEO of Teach Plus, and James Bergeron, President of the National Council of Higher Education Resources (NCHER). Third Way’s Deputy Director of Education, Tamara Hiler, moderated the conversation.
Hiler first asked the panelists to highlight the biggest positives and negatives to come out of NCLB, as well as what ESSA needed to do to preserve what worked well and alleviate what didn’t. The comments from the three panelists emphasized the importance of outcomes, accountability along with transparency, and increased support towards narrowing the achievement gap as all positives from the NCLB era. They also all agreed that one of the biggest changes was the genuine bipartisan nature in the creation of ESSA to close the achievement gap in our K-12 system. In terms of what NCLB missed, the panelist mentioned that it was a one size fits all solution.
The panelists, experts on this topic, then discussed the importance of looking below the averages when determining how well an institution is truly serving all of its students. This includes determining metrics for various subgroups of students and measuring the gaps between those subgroups and the overall student population. To achieve this and broader accountability, panelists mentioned the need to set up a differentiated system that includes a series of incentives and rewards. Panelists also cautioned that any federal accountability system should aim to meet the schools where they are in order to avoid creating another “Race to the Top” scenario and to avoid widening gaps even further.
Throughout the event the questions, “who are we accountable to?” and “what are we accountable for?” came up multiple times. The panel made the point that there is a difference in between the mentality of who is responsible for outcomes in the K-12 system and the higher education system. Students are almost never blamed for poor outcomes or not graduating in the K-12 system, but when it comes to higher education, the students are almost always the first to receive blame. The mentality in the K-12 system is that we “had to save the kids.” While in higher education, it remains unclear who the institutions are actually responsible to.
Third Way’s hope is that as Congress looks to reauthorize HEA, they will reflect on the NCLB era to make sure legislation is crafted in a way that improves the quality of our higher education system. Thank you to our esteemed panelists for contributing to this conversation!
If you have suggestions for a future “Behind the Bumper Sticker” topic you think we should demystify, please email Molly Simon at firstname.lastname@example.org.