NCLB Waivers, School Reform and Educational Inequality


The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act introduced new structures of test-based school accountability requiring that students meet proficiency standards by a deadline of 2013-2014. This deadline has come and gone, and instead of a complete restructuring of NCLB, the US Department of Education has sought to improve the nation’s lowest performing schools by issuing state-specific waivers to excuse schools from NCLB requirements. Schools eligible for NCLB waivers are designated as either Priority or Focus Schools using explicit criteria based on measures of student prior achievement.

  • Priority Schools represent those with the most chronic underperformance
  • Focus Schools are characterized by the largest student achievement gaps

The receipt of NCLB waivers holds a stipulation that states implement a specified reform approach with an emphasis on organizational and instructional improvement. This unique insertion of federal authority into state educational practice begs an examination of the impact of these reform prescriptions as part of an overall evaluation of policy effectiveness.

What are the Research Objectives?

The sharply discontinuous assignment categories for schools offer a unique opportunity for precise measurement. The reforms prescribed for each type of school (Priority vs. Focus) provide sharp contrast to one another in the autonomy they provide to state and local authorities, as well as their overall strategy.

This study will perform several state-specific regression-discontinuity analyses to measure how the waiver reforms have influenced not only student achievement, but a variety of institutional practices that influence school performance. This analysis will also include key ancillary evidence and robustness checks to ensure accuracy.

Research Questions

  • How have Priority-School reforms influenced observed measures of school staffing and practices?
  • How have Priority-School reforms influenced key student outcomes including test-based measures of achievement (i.e., both across core subjects and among subgroups) as well as other available measures (e.g., attendance, educational attainment)?
  • How have Focus-School reforms influenced observed measures of school staffing and practices?
  • How have Focus-School reforms influenced key student outcomes including test-based measures of achievement as well as other available measures (e.g., attendance, educational attainment), particularly for targeted subgroups?

How is the Study Funded?

The study is funded by generous grants from the Spencer Foundation and the William T. Grant Foundation.

Who will Use the Research?

Our evaluations have the potential to inform policy discussions over educational opportunity in some of the most disadvantaged classrooms in the United States. They will also provide policy prescriptions for reform of key organizational and instructional structures in public schools with the most expressed need as defined by the federal government.

Principal Investigators

Brian A. Jacob, University of Michigan

Thomas S. Dee, PhD, is a professor of education at Stanford University and a research associate with the programs on education, children, and health at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Professor Dee is also a co-editor of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. His research focuses largely on the use of quantitative methods (e.g., panel data techniques, instrumental variables, and random assignment) to inform contemporary policy debates. Recent examples of his work include econometric evaluations of incentive and accountability-based reforms and an analysis of recent, stimulus-funded, school-turnaround initiatives.

Steven W. Hemelt is an assistant professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. He also holds positions as a faculty fellow at the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina (EPIC) in Chapel Hill and as an affiliated researcher at the Education Policy Initiative and Michigan Consortium for Educational Research (MCER) at the University of Michigan. His research uses quantitative methods to answer cause and effect questions spanning topics of education policy, economics of education, labor economics, and program evaluation. Dr. Hemelt’s work has recently included an examination of program effects on student high school performance, transition to college, and longer-run college outcomes, as well as the impact of K-12 accountability mechanisms on student outcomes.