Do Education Leaders Have a Plan for the World After No Child Left Behind?

Do Education Leaders Have a Plan for the World After No Child Left Behind?
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President George W. Bush, collects letters from pupils, during a visit to the General Philip Kearny School in Philadelphia, Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009, to mark the anniversary of his No Child Left Behind law. (AP Photo)

RCEd Commentary

As Congress returns from its recess, and with ESEA reauthorization looking like it might actually happen, education leaders are beginning to contemplate what life under the new law might look like.

If reauthorization passes, these leaders will have the opportunity to rethink what they’re trying to accomplish and what changes will help them get there. What will they do with the newfound freedom they’re expected to get? What should they do?

In a world of increased flexibility from federal mandates, many state and local systems will need to rediscover the lost art of managing themselves.

The mandates that would go away under reauthorization constituted a heavy dose of “external” accountability for states, districts, and schools: required interventions, report cards, turnaround models, and the like. These levers are blunt and rooted mostly in policy. They also focus mostly on the relationships between levels in an education system – federal to state, state to district, and so on – rather than the relationships within each of those levels.

But as most serious education practitioners will tell you, accountability between levels of a system counts for little if it isn’t accompanied by accountability within those levels. This “internal” accountability is a set of more nuanced tools, anchored in practice and culture within each school building and central or state office, that aligns practitioners and leaders around a shared goal.

Internal accountability can precede external accountability and enhance it. Unfortunately, the reverse is not true: policy can often get in the way of practice.

This is the situation we find ourselves in during the twilight of the NCLB era: a workforce whose reform fatigue is so overwhelming that they’re making the impossible possible – Congressional cooperation! – to get rid of all these mandates. Once the chains are loosened, though, many state and local systems may find that they’re out of practice at setting their own direction, determining their own priorities, and managing and driving implementation.

For the last five years, my colleagues and I have worked with numerous state and local leaders to answer the question of what states should do with their newfound freedom, post-NCLB. They include states like Massachusetts and Kentucky, as well as large districts like the Hawaii Department of Education.

Their contexts are very different, but they have two things in common. First, they have all achieved remarkable results in the last five years, nearly doubling college and career readiness rates, narrowing achievement gaps, and seeing double-digit increases in student proficiency in some subjects. Second, if asked how they did it, each of them would point to a handful of key things that they did to hold themselves accountable for results:

-- They set clear, widely shared goals for their students, consistent with but independent of the external mandates.

-- They analyzed their own data and evidence to get a sense of current progress and the biggest barriers to achieving the goals.

-- They developed delivery plans that guide their day-to-day work by explicitly defining what strategies they will pursue to achieve these goals, how they will reach the field at scale, and how they will know whether the work is on track.

-- They established internal performance management routines that facilitate a regular and shared view of progress, a prioritization of the biggest challenges, and agreement on the course corrections needed and the next steps to take.

-- They identified and addressed the change management challenges that come with any reform and attended to them all the time.

In short, these leaders created internal accountability by becoming experts at implementation.

More good ideas in education have died quiet and unremarked deaths because of poor implementation than from any other cause. And external accountability is most likely to fail when the capacity of the accountable to implement isn’t adequately considered.

We often overlook implementation because we assume that everyone must learn how to do it at some point. But few go to school to learn how to implement, and many of those who have figured it out have done so by accident. The good news, though, is that implementation is a discipline – one that can be taught and learned like any other. The leaders we’ve worked with over the last five years prove it – and they prove that the results are worth the effort.

Right now, there are a handful of independent organizations – mine included – that are trying to spread this discipline. Our vision is for the few of us doing this work to become a movement of practitioners that takes on a life of its own – practitioners who are trained in the discipline of implementation during their pre-service years and who form job-embedded communities of practice afterwards. In this world, organizations wouldn’t be promulgators of best practice – we’d be conveners and curators of it.

This lost art of self-management has always been important and always will be. But if ESEA reauthorization happens, it will take on a new salience and urgency in our field, as leaders at every level scramble to make sense of the new landscape that confronts them. Hopefully, this time, they’ll be ready.  

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