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The Importance and Roles of Incentives in the Setting of No Child Left Behind

The Importance and Roles of Incentives in the Setting of No Child Left Behind

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The Importance and Roles of Incentives in the Setting of No Child Left Behind David Mariutto University of Central Florida



This paper examines the use of motivational incentives, both rewards and sanctions, in United States school accountability policy in the setting of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Hanushek and Raymond (2002), discuss four essential pieces of accountability policy. Using these components as a foundation, the paper provides perspective on each component’s influence on the use of incentives to motivate schools to improve performance. From further research, including opinions from Orange County School Board Vice-Chair Rick Roach, the paper concludes that the scope of attention afforded to each component of a child’s education and to accountability policy itself plays the largest role in the decision to issue rewards and sanctions based off school performance on NCLB mandated tests.

The issue of the administration of public education in the United States is one that

THE IMPORTANCE AND ROLES OF INCENTIVES has changed dramatically since the 1980s. As a result of the publication of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform by the Reagan Administration’s National


Commission on Excellence in Education in 1983, a need for far-reaching changes in policy was evident. In the 1990’s, the popularity of standardized assessments to measure school performance grew, and soon, their very purpose began to change. After many states created their own education standards, assessments were no longer used only to monitor student progress, but utilized as an agent of increasing performance (Kifer 2000). The renewed push from the public for an established system of rewards and sanctions, what is frequently referred to simply as “accountability,” resulted in the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001 by President George W. Bush. The Act requires states to administer standardized tests to measure student performance in Math Reading and Writing each year from grades three through eight, and an additional test in high school. While the Act did not establish its own standards, it relied on the states to create and maintain their own set of standards that would determine the levels of student achievement necessary to classify a school as successful or in need of improvement (Peterson & West, 2003). Considering this setting, how should public managers in education go about determining reasonable standards that place neither the state nor its students at a disadvantage? And at which benchmarks should the government reward or impose sanctions on districts or individual schools? There are multiple methods of measuring accountability, and the states do not agree on which should be used and how they should be applied. According to research conducted at Stanford University, there are four parts of each system of accountability that should be considered when developing policy: its focus, scope of measurement, design of measurement, and incentives.



The focus of a system includes what schools are held accountable for, such as the quality of methods used for instruction, the quality of results of instruction, or both. In a system with a hybrid focus, being that it incorporates both focuses, schools and districts can be held accountable not just for the output of their efforts (higher test scores, student achievement, etc.), but their inputs as well, such as the availability of computers on campus and the quality of courses offered. This contrasts with what is often the alternative—a system issues incentives and sanctions based only on the quality of results through testing and student achievement, while ignoring inputs (Hanushek & Raymond, 2002). However, there is still some dispute over how highly inputs should be weighted when grading schools. This is because the inclusion of such inputs can have a disproportionately negative effect on the evaluations of schools in poor or rural districts, which generally have fewer resources and advanced course offerings because of a lack of demand. Rick Roach, the Vice-Chair of the School Board of Orange County, Florida, sees the consideration of inputs as a vital component of accountability. The State of Florida has recently implemented changes in its accountability policy that will take affect later this year, which increases the role of input factors in the determination of the letter grade the Florida Department of Education awards high schools. Despite his belief in the importance of input factors, he says the state now, “relies way too much,” on them in its accountability formula. (R. Roach, Personal Communication, November 10, 2009) The scope of measurement of a system determines the extent to which accountability is measured in schools. Most often, the number of grade-levels measured for the purposes of issuing a reward or sanction defines the scope. There is wide variation amongst states in scope; some measure less than five grade levels, while others measure



The design of a system includes the weight each focus is given when measuring accountability. Therefore, design goes hand-in-hand with its incentives because the determination of the factors in each focus that are most important to measure and incorporate into accountability will impact a public manager’s recommendation for the establishment of specific benchmarks for incentives and sanctions (Hanushek & Raymond, 2002). There are two broad approaches to design in American education accountability systems: A cross-sectional approach to measuring success attempts to place schools on equal footing, regardless of the makeup of their student bodies. Essentially, it attempts to measure student success based on the performance of the school by comparing statistics of like-students, in an attempt to eliminate the influence of outside factors such as family and wealth in measurement. For example, the performance of a student who receives reducedprice lunch would be compared to other reduced-price lunch students for accountability purposes. This allows for differences in non-school factors to not unnecessarily harm a school through sanctions. To determine a growth of success, a status-change model is used with the cross-sectional approach to determine if average achievement increases over time, like comparing today’s reduced-price lunch 3rd graders with those of four years ago. An alternative method of measuring accountability is through a longitudinal approach. This approach uses a cohort gain model, which measures an increase in success in students amongst their peers. Instead of benchmarking what is learned, the amount that is learned is benchmarked by comparing, for example, today’s 4th graders to the previous year’s 3rd graders. In this model, there is no need to negate non-school factors because they



remain relatively constant as students age. In addition, it doesn’t penalize schools for new students who, when admitted, are behind the rest of their classmates. Many of these pupils fail to reach the same level of proficiency as their peers by the end of the year, yet still learn a year’s worth of knowledge in a year’s time (Peterson & West, 2003). Amongst the states, the cross-sectional approach is far more popular; only four states: New Mexico, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Massachusetts, utilize a longitudinal approach in the design of their accountability systems. Nonetheless, in any system of accountability, there is one reward and sanction that is always present—the publicity of a school’s standardized test scores. The ability of the public to view the performance of any public school places its reputation on the line every year and motivates school administrators and public education managers to improve performance. In addition, improved scores also create indirect rewards for communities, such as higher home values (Hanushek & Raymond, 2002). However, other methodologies of rewarding and punishing schools, administrators, teachers, and students have risen from the movement for accountability. A major issue in the administration of accountability policy includes the decision to direct certain rewards and sanctions onto specific groups, or simply, its equity. There are two dimensions to achieving equity in the distribution of incentives. First, policy makers must determine the factors most responsible for student success and ensure that rewards and consequences are distributed equally amongst them. For example, is it the teachers, whose students’ performance on NCLB mandated testing maybe tied to his/her paycheck as a motivator? Is it the student, whose graduation or acceptance of course credit may be on the line? Or is it the school’s administration, which may be threatened with a takeover by the state for a

THE IMPORTANCE AND ROLES OF INCENTIVES failing grade? The second dimension of equity of incentives involves the breadth of


standards on which the decision to issue either a reward or sanction is based. Because of the need to use standardized tests to measure student performance, there is consistency in the structure of exam items and tested content year-to-year. This narrows the focus of teaching in schools onto subjects and topics that are tested as part of accountability systems. As a result, only those subjects and items tied to the accountability system of incentives will see change and reform in the classroom. Because of this, administrators of education policy must broadly apply incentives to as many subjects taught in school as possible if a system that places each subject on equitable terms is to become a reality (Kifer, 2001). Complicating the subject of incentives further is the presence of special education students. Because NCLB, true to its name, expects special education students to reach the same benchmarks as their non-disabled peers, intense emphasis on subjects measured under accountability occurs in these classrooms. Rick Roach from Florida has seen a massive change in the way his county educates its special education students, and from his perspective, it is not for the better. To allow for adequate time for these students to fully digest and understand the material necessary to succeed on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, Florida’s standardized exam used to measure accountability, Physical Education, Art, Music, and other non-core subjects have been completely eliminated from Orange County’s special education curriculum. These subjects, Roach says, remain important not because of what may be learned but because they act as motivational factors for students by encouraging active exercise and creativity. Because accountability’s system of rewards and sanctions place emphasis on Reading, Writing, and Math, other outside

THE IMPORTANCE AND ROLES OF INCENTIVES subjects are deemphasized despite their potential benefit for a student’s breadth of education and variety of school-day activities.


A fundamental pillar of Roach’s perspective on current accountability policy as a whole, like many critics, is that both those who make policy and the administrators who carry them out have forgotten about “human factors,” which include a slew of variables such as the diversity and wealth of a school’s population, the needs of special education students, the ever-increasing demands of teachers made as a result of accountability policy, and others (Roach, 2009). Arguably, this result is because accountability policy is the product of a bureaucracy, which often fails to take such considerations into account while sacrificing efficiency in exchange for protection from corrupting factors. This is because the rules and regulations, such as those found in accountability systems, that govern bureaucracies may fail to take these human factors into account in reward and sanctionrelated decision-making (Shafritz, Russell & Borick, 2009). However, the lack of bureaucracy or regulation may also be the source of other issues surrounding accountability. Because of NCLB’s lack of a national standard for success or the merits of an incentive, states retain relatively free-reign over the administration of education, just as they historically have had. However, this has led to numerous problems both nationwide and at the state level when it comes to the measurement of success. Because of a lack of national oversight of state accountability systems, there is no consistent method for comparing the success of students across state lines. There have been past efforts before the passage of NCLB and the implementation of state standards to balance both the country’s values of state control of education and the national consistency of results. In 1965, the Education Commission of the States was

THE IMPORTANCE AND ROLES OF INCENTIVES created by Congress as an interstate compact, which 49 states signed onto, for states to


exchange ideas on education policy. Perhaps most importantly, it was also tasked with the administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—today also known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” a tool of state-by-state comparison of success. The test underwent a notable transformation in the 1990s, when the test switched its purpose from measuring what students know, to the percent of students who have reached specific benchmarks of knowledge they should know. This change in purpose was indicative of the shift in education policy from simple monitoring to accountability after the publication of A Nation at Risk. In a report on accountability published in 1997, the Commission determined that a complete system of accountability consists of four factors: standards-based assessments, rewards, sanctions, and multiple indicators of success (Kifer, 2001). The impact of this report can be seen in the foundations NCLB and other state systems of accountability created around it. However, to this day, the issue of state consistency still remains an issue in the administration of education policy. While each state has established its own rewards, and in some cases, sanctions based on school performance, there are wide divisions between states in the determination of merit for these motivators. As a result of the growth of importance of school accountability, the effectiveness and reliability of tools, such as standardized tests, for measuring classroom success has become an important factor in the development of any education policy. Likewise, the potential for the misuse of these measuring sticks has also grown with their importance in the public perception of the success or failure of state education policy. That concept is rooted in a social-science observation known as Campbell’s



law, which states that “the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it was intended to monitor.” In the setting of NCLB and state standards, this law implies that the use of so-called “high-stakes” tests and their attached rewards and sanctions encourages the manipulation of these results by lawmakers in an attempt to please the public and avoid retribution from the federal government for failure (Nichols & Berliner, 2007). Such manipulation occurred in a well-documented case of 2005 4th grade-reading scores from Mississippi. In that year, 89% of Mississippi’s 4th graders were determined to be “proficient” as defined by their state examination mandated by NCLB—making Mississippi the strongest-performing state for reading in the entire country when only results from state-administered tests are compared. However, only 18% of the same 4th graders were determined to be proficient on the 2005 NAEP exam, placing Mississippi 49th in the country on that scale (Carey, 2006). Ultimately, it has proven to be very difficult to reconcile these many factors and levels of NCLB accountability systems into a policy that increases student achievement while maintaining a broad and balanced curriculum, equity of the distribution of incentives, and a measurement of success that neither discounts the significant impact outside factors that contribute to the readiness to learn nor the reasonable gains students behind grade level may make in proportion to their on-track peers. A major issue observed in accountability systems is that improvement is only observed in subject areas that are measured by the system; yet, it is impossible to measure everything taught in the classroom. When only specific grades and concentrations are measured for success, a limited scope of attention is created because of the rewards and sanctions tied to them impact not just those areas of



concentration, but the entire school. This limited scope of attention does not only apply to subject areas measured—it is part of a broader theme of NCLB and accountability. The scope of attention acts as both a policy filter that determines “what is important,” like classroom subjects, input factors, and “human factors” of education. Our scope of attention has also been restricted to intrastate-level performance rather than interstate comparisons and solutions. The identification of a scope of attention is the root factor in how education is administrated statewide because it determines the benchmarks that trigger incentives, the motivator that makes accountability function. Without a proper scope of attention, incentives can be rendered ineffective towards the goals of accountability by promoting under-emphasis or over-emphasis of pieces of the curriculum, input factors, human factors, statewide testing results, national “report card” results, the performance of segments of the student population, and other measurable pieces of public education.

References Carey, K. (2006). Hot air: How states inflate their educational progress under NCLB. Washington D.C.: Education Sector. Hanushek, E. A., & Raymond, M. E. (2002). Improving educational quality: How best to evaluate our schools?. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Kifer, E. (2001). Large-scale assessment : Dimensions, Dilemmas, and Policy. Thousand



Nichols, S. L., & Berliner, D. C. (2007). Collateral Damage : How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America's Schools. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press. Peterson, P. E., & West, M. R. (2003). No child left behind? : The Politics and Practice of School Accountability. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

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