The Education Trust has a proud and distinguished history. When the group got its start in the mid-1990s, achievement for poor and minority children was lagging, and the education policy community largely ignored their needs. Ed Trust changed all that with a single-minded focus on equity, hitched to the relatively new notion of school-level accountability.
By the late 1990s, achievement for poor, minority, and low-performing students started a meteoric rise, particularly in the states first to embrace accountability; by 2001, Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind act, a law Ed Trust largely designed. And in the early 2000s, achievement continued to climb for the children who had been “left behind,” especially in the late-adopter states. (This history is unpacked skillfully by Mark Schneider in this Fordham Institute report.) Low-income, low-achieving, and minority children are now reading and doing math two to three grade levels higher than they were in the mid-1990s, and Ed Trust deserves a ton of credit for that incredible progress.
But we all know that this progress came with some serious unintended consequences: Teaching to the test, narrowing of the curriculum, and benign neglect for children at the middle and top of the performance spectrum. One can argue that those trade-offs were worth it, but it’s hard to dismiss their existence. (As Schneider shows, it’s also clear that the payoff from NCLB-style accountability was dissipating by the late 2000s.)
One of the worst repercussions, in my view, was that this approach to accountability was incredibly...