In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education granted states the opportunity to apply for waivers from the core requirements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In exchange, states implemented systems of differentiated accountability in which they identified and intervened in their lowest-performing schools (“Priority” schools) and schools with the largest achievement gaps between subgroups of students (“Focus” schools).
THIS STUDY uses administrative data from Michigan in a series of regression-discontinuity analyses to study the effects of these reforms on schools and students.
Overall, the authors find that neither reform had appreciable impacts on various measures of school staffing, student composition, or academic achievement. The authors do find some evidence that the Focus designation led to small, short-run reductions in the within-school math achievement gap – but that these reductions were driven by stagnant performance of lower-achieving students alongside declines in the performance of their higher-achieving peers.
These findings serve as a cautionary tale for the capacity of the accountability provisions embedded in the recent reauthorization of NCLB, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), to meaningfully improve student and school outcome.
Another study examines the Focus School reforms in the state of Kentucky. The reforms in this state are uniquely interesting for several reasons. One is that the state developed unusually explicit guidance for Focus Schools centered on a comprehensive school-planning process. Second, the state identified Focus Schools using a "super subgroup" measure that combined traditionally low-performing subgroups into an umbrella group. This design feature may have catalyzed broader whole-school reforms and attenuated the incentives to target reform efforts narrowly.
Using regression discontinuity designs, this study finds that these reforms led to substantial improvements in school performance, raising math achievement by 17 percent and reading achievement by 9 percent.