Review of The Lessons of No Child Left Behind

Thomas Ahn and Jacob Vigdor
American Enterprise Institute
August 27, 2013

This new report from the American Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank, attempts to tease out the effects of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) on North Carolina achievement scores. In particular, the report attempts to isolate the effects of NCLB’s threat of sanctions placed on underperforming schools. While generally skeptical that NCLB has discernibly lifted learning over the past decade, the report does ascribe discrete yet small achievement gains to the sanction provisions of the law. Based on a brief literature review and the modest effects from sanctions found in North Carolina in this new study (effect size of 0.05 of a standard deviation), the authors infer that federal pressure and punishment are promising policy avenues. While the report claims that NCLB’s specific policy levers can be definitively estimated amidst all the collateral policy noise, the reader learns little about how local educators comprehend or respond to federal and state accountability pressures. It is notable that this report from a prominent conservative think tank signals the importance of federal leadership and quality control from Washington. What’s missing from the report—limiting the utility of the analysis—is that readers come away with little understanding of what elements of NCLB have lifted students and which have failed.

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