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Pacts Americana: Balancing National Interests, State Autonomy, and Education Accountability

Chad Aldeman, Kelly Robson & Andy Smarick
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More than 13 years ago, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The law’s strict policies were a strong response to decades of limited or ineffective accountability for billions in annual federal education funds. But ultimately, the law’s highly detailed, inflexible rules would fuel a backlash and spur interest in returning to a much more limited federal role.

In 2011, responding to congressional standstill and growing state and local frustration with NCLB, President Obama allowed states to request waivers from many of the law’s core elements in exchange for adopting a suite of federally prescribed reforms on standards, assessments, and teacher policies.

We’re three years into the “Waiver Era” and 83 percent of U.S. students—more than 41 million children—now attend schools in states freed from NCLB. It’s unlikely that the nation as a whole will ever revert back to NCLB. The trend is clear: From NCLB’s strict federal rules to the slightly less-standardized waiver rules to the current congressional proposals for reauthorizing the law, the next federal accountability law will most likely return a substantial amount of discretion to states.

In Pacts Americana: Balancing National Interests, State Autonomy, and Education Accountability, Chad Aldeman, Kelly Robson, and Andy Smarick put forth a proposal for a new federal-state relationship called “performance compacts” that would bridge the gap between NCLB’s heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all accountability and the current inclination to overcorrect.

A federal-state performance compact system would build on three key lessons learned from the 50 years of ESEA:

  • First, test-based accountability has produced positive academic outcomes, especially for our nation’s most underserved children. While there are real challenges with NCLB, we cannot ignore that achievement scores and graduation rates did increase during the NCLB era.
  • Second, states will vary in their implementation of and success with federal law. NCLB demonstrates that even with a strong federal role, the positive influence of accountability can be dulled by a number of state-, district-, and school-level policies and practices.
  • Finally, state flexibility is essential. While it may be a natural impulse to make accountability rules even tighter in response to inaction, NCLB suggests that would almost certainly be counterproductive. Instead, states must be empowered to design their own accountability systems, supports, and interventions that fit their unique histories, demographics, traditions, and policies. The federal government should not—and cannot—implement a one-size-fits-all model across such widely varying contexts.

A federal-state performance compact system would reflect these lessons. Under such a system, the federal government would work with each state to establish ambitious student performance goals; each state would develop a comprehensive, contextualized plan for reaching those goals; each state with an approved plan would be freed from federal rules on school and district ratings and interventions; and the federal government would monitor state results, extending the length of compacts with those states making progress and revisiting compacts with states where performance lost ground. Ultimately, the federal government would hold states accountable for student outcomes while leaving the details (content standards, assessments, curricula, interventions, and more) to the discretion of each state.

A system of performance compacts could offer a new, bipartisan path forward on federal K-12 policy, striking a balance among the urgency to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students, the practicality of preserving state autonomy, and the need to hold states accountable for results.