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Rewards, Not Sanctions, Help Schoolsl Succeed Under Accountability Programs, Study Finds

Susan Notes: Note that the schools deemed successful put a lot of emphasis on the importance of the tests. Nobody here is trying to challenge the system.

COLUMBUS, Ohio One problem with the "No Child Left Behind" Act may well be that it punishes schools and teachers when students don't meet standards, rather than rewarding educators when students succeed.

A new study suggests that rewarding schools may be more successful.

"We can't say yet whether rewards or sanctions are directly connected to student learning, but these results suggest rewards are more likely to lead to positive results than are sanctions."

The research was done in six southern states, some of which have state accountability programs similar to that found in the more recent federal "No Child Left Behind Act."

The study found that sanctions for poorly performing schools had several potentially harmful consequences, including teachers who felt less engaged in teaching, and who were less likely to use what they learned in professional development in their instruction.

On the other hand, in states that had rewards for better-performing schools, teachers were more likely to report that their professional development was consistent and coherent with the goals of the school.

"We can't say yet whether rewards or sanctions are directly connected to student learning, but these results suggest rewards are more likely to lead to positive results than are sanctions," said Darleen Opfer, co-author of the study and associate professor of education at Ohio State University.

Under No Child Left Behind, which was signed into law in 2002, schools are required to show gains in reading and math test scores each year and will suffer sanctions if they lag behind. While data for this study was collected before No Child Left Behind became law, the federal legislation includes many reward and sanction components similar to those found in some of the state systems studied, she said.

Opfer conducted the study with Gary Henry, professor of public administration and urban studies at Georgia State University. Part of their research will be presented April 12 in San Diego at the American Education Research Association meeting.

The researchers studied schools in North Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee in 2001 to determine how each state's school accountability laws have affected teaching and learning.

While some studies suggest that these accountability programs have led to improving student test scores, Opfer said little research has been done to see how such programs may work. The study involved questionnaires given to teachers in 24 schools in each state. Schools were selected to ensure there were schools rated as high, low and average performing in terms of student test scores. Teachers were asked about their participation in professional development programs expected to improve instruction and student achievement. They were also asked about their opinions of professional development, and about their state's accountability system.

The study focused on teacher professional development because many researchers have said such programs would be key to ensuring that accountability systems work, Opfer said.

"Teachers for the most part don't know how to deal with the testing that is a key part of accountability systems such as those we studied and No Child Left Behind," Opfer said. "Teachers need to learn about how these high-stakes accountability tests are going to change how and what they teach their students."

The study found that, in states which had sanctions for poorly performing schools, teachers were less likely to say they would put what they learned in professional development into practice in their own teaching. The professional development programs themselves tended to be less effective in states with sanctions, Opfer said, because they didn't encourage active learning by participating teachers.

In states that rewarded high-performing schools, teachers reported they had fewer total hours of professional development, but that it was of more high quality and was more coherent with their own and their school's goals.

"Accountability systems may work better if they focus on rewarding teachers and schools that do well rather than punishing schools who aren't meeting goals," she said.

The study also found that, overall, professional development programs in most states did not have the components that researchers believed would be needed to help teachers meet accountability standards. Researchers believed professional development programs would need specific features, such as group participation in learning exercises and a focus on content.

But even in states where student achievement increased the most, teacher development programs didn't tend to have these features, Opfer said.

"It may be that professional development doesn't have to follow the structure we thought it did to be successful," Opfer said. "Or it may be that other things are more important than professional development. But if professional development does help teachers meet the requirements of accountability, our results suggest we haven't identified the factors that make professional development successful."

However, the study found a key element in making accountability systems successful: support from local school districts.

Opfer said No Child Left Behind focuses on school performance and gives little attention to the role that school districts play in accountability.

"No Child Left Behind was designed to bypass districts and go almost directly to schools to measure success. But our research shows that, in these six states, the district support was key to whether accountability actually resulted in better student performance," she said.

Schools that succeeded in making accountability work had strong support from their districts that allowed them to make necessary changes. Support included more than financial resources, Opfer said. It included such things as opportunities for teachers to network and discuss ways to improve teaching and student performance.

Successful districts also made wise personnel decisions, such as matching experienced teachers with the hardest-to-teach students.

These districts also took extra steps to help teachers and schools prepare for high-stakes accountability testing. "They didn't just provide testing materials to schools -- they explained what the tests meant for teaching and learning, and helped schools and teachers identify their strengths and deficiencies and what they could do to improve," she said.

Overall, the results suggest the key to successful accountability systems is to involve districts in implementing the programs and focusing more on rewards than on sanctions, she said.

This study was funded by The Spencer Foundation, a private group that sponsors research on improving education.

Contact: Darleen Opfer, (614) 292-1286; Opfer.6@osu.edu
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu

Ohio State Research News



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