Higher Ed Can Learn from Victories, Missteps of ‘No Child Left Behind’ Era

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Higher Education can a take note from the success and failures of the efforts taken to improve affordability and transparency for K-12 schools during the ‘No Child Left Behind’ (NCLB) era, according to Third Way, a Washington-based centrist think tank.

In its report, “What Can ‘No Child Left Behind’ Teach Higher Education,” Third Way’s Tamara Hiler and Lanae Erickson Hatalsky argue that higher education is currently facing similar issues related to poor student outcomes that inspired the overhaul of elementary and secondary education in 2001, and that Congress has the unique opportunity to “change this trajectory” through the impending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA).

“In higher education there has really been no comparable effort,” Hiler said during a panel promoting the report Thursday.

Panelist Sarah Bolton, former Democratic education policy director of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee, added that the reason for this discrepancy is that “it’s a lot easier in higher education for students to fall through the cracks,” and that unlike in the K-12 world, where schools are the first to blame for poor student outcomes, there is a “detrimental” mentality that college students are solely responsible for their successes or failures, not the institutions that serve them.

While the authors and panelists agreed that higher education is in need of a similar overhaul and refocus on accountability that was championed during the NCLB era, they also argued that policymakers should learn from the past failures of that legislation, specifically how a “one-size-fits-all” approach to benchmarks and sanctions for a variety of schools serving different student populations can do more harm than good.

“[A]s anyone who followed the lifespan of NCLB knows, implementing a large-scale accountability system can come with adverse consequences, especially if those systems are inflexible, set unachievable benchmarks, fail to put in place proper tools for measuring success, or don’t address the realities of an uneven playing field or challenges of capacity to improve from the start,” the authors wrote.

For example, NCLB legislation mandated that K-12 schools would be deemed failing and subject to the loss of federal funds if 100 percent of their students did not meet proficiency standards in math and reading within a 15-year timeframe. One unintended consequence of this regulation was that it caused schools to overemphasize those subjects and lower their standards for what would be considered proficient to avoid sanctions and being flagged. The authors warned that a similar phenomenon can occur in higher education if only one benchmark such as completion rates are used to judge institutional success, because it could “have the unintended consequences of turning colleges into diploma mills that hand out meaningless degrees.”

While some higher education stakeholders are currently proposing to judge success by looking at a variety of factors, such as employment and loan repayment rates, the authors warn that even adding more “hard skills” to the metric would not enough. Instead, they propose that Congress “explore ways to give college credit for some of the intangible outcomes they may provide in addition to the more academic- and economic-related factors currently on the table.”

Another issue the authors found with the former legislation was its focus on a “proficiency bar” for schools to meet, rather than on growth. This hurt schools that served larger pools of needy students and were not able meet the 100 percent benchmark despite their best efforts. Panelist James Bergeron, the president of the National Council of Higher Education Resources (NCHER), said the NCLB legislation simply did not take into account the effect it would have on those schools.  

Learning from those mistakes, the authors suggested that higher education adopt policies that set a minimum standard by which to measure success, as well as incentivize growth by measuring year-over-year progress. Additionally, the authors recommended that higher education accountability allow for risk-adjusted metrics, which, they argue “would not excuse institutions simply because they serve low-income students, first-generation students, or students of color, but recognize the resources and capacity required to serve these students well and take into account how institutions with similar demographics are getting wildly different results.”

The authors also warned higher education policymakers against implementing strict sanctions on schools for producing poor results, which caused schools during the NCLB era to close when they failed to meet benchmarks in “unrealistically short timelines.” The authors wrote that as lawmakers and higher education stakeholders debate the “appropriate balance of carrots and sticks” by which to motivate schools to improve students’ outcomes, they should move away from revoking Title IV eligibility completely, and instead look at graduated sanctions for schools that don't improve each year, as well as focus on program-level penalties to avoid shutting down entire institutions. The authors also suggested implementing financial bonuses for schools that do show improvements and exceed benchmarks, which is similar to NASFAA’s recommendation to Congress on how best to establish a risk-sharing model for institutions.

Bergeron emphasized that what we should take from the NCLB era is the focus on accountability in education, and said that policymakers and higher education stakeholders need to ask themselves, “who do we want to be accountable to, what we want to be accountable for, and how to make sure those dots are connected.”

“This is just the start of the discussion around accountability,” Bergeron said. “If you don’t get ahead of it, it’s going to get worse really soon.”


Publication Date: 7/13/2018

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