When I joined the administration of George H.W. Bush in 1991, I had no preconceived ideas about choice and accountability. "Choice" meant vouchers, a cause that had been rebuffed repeatedly in state referendums and by the courts; the issue had never gotten my attention. "Accountability" was one of those platitudinous terms that everyone used admiringly but no one did anything about. My abiding interest, then and now, was curriculum—that is, the knowledge that is purposefully taught in subjects like history, geography, the arts, literature, civics, science and mathematics. I believed that American schools should have a coherent curriculum so that teachers would know what they are expected to teach and children would have continuity of instruction, no matter where they lived.
However, after I left the administration in 1993, I supported the nascent charter school movement, even going to Albany, New York, to urge legislators to adopt a law permitting such schools to be created in the state. I supported merit pay as a form of accountability, on the assumption that teachers whose students are more successful should be paid more than their peers. I supported testing, expecting that better information would help to pinpoint where improvement was needed. I was affiliated with conservative think tanks, including the Manhattan Institute, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Hoover Institution. When Congress passed the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation in 2001 and President George W. Bush signed it in 2002, I applauded.
In my new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, I describe how I came to repudiate my support for choice and accountability, though not for curriculum reform, which I still believe is necessary and valuable. Some news accounts have said I did a U-turn, but in fact I was really reverting to the time before I jumped on the bandwagon of organizational change and accountability, the time when I knew that the only changes that matter are in the classroom and in children’s lives. Reaching this conclusion was not an overnight conversion but rather the result of watching how the policies of choice and accountability played out in reality. I began to re-evaluate my views as early as 2004, as I watched the implementation of mayoral control in New York City, with its heavy emphasis on accountability and choice.
Many people have told me that I should have known better, and they are right: I should have. But I didn’t, and I am trying to make up for it now.
NCLB made accountability the nation’s education policy. It used to be the case that educators could more or less ignore federal education policy, because it seldom touched their classrooms. Thanks to NCLB, this is no longer the case. Now federal policy affects every school. In my book I define the governing philosophy of NCLB as "measure and punish." I conclude that this approach, which uses accountability as a stick to threaten schools, has failed.
The law requires that every state test every student from grades three to eight in reading and mathematics, then disaggregate each school’s scores by race, limited English proficiency, disability and low-income status. The law mandates that every student in every group must reach 100 percent proficiency by 2014. Every state is left to choose its own test and define proficiency as it wishes. If only one group in a school fails to make steady progress toward that goal, the school faces increasingly severe remedies and sanctions. First, the school will be put on notice; then all students in the school (including those who are doing well) will be offered the choice to go to a different school. In the third year, low-income students will be offered free tutoring after school. If the school does not meet its projected target over five consecutive years, it may be privatized or handed over to state control or charter managers; its staff may be fired, it may be closed or it may be restructured in some other way. Currently, about one-third of all public schools in the nation—more than 30,000—have been stigmatized as failing because they did not make what the law calls "adequate yearly progress."