An Organizational Approach
to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act
—By Dominique L. Galloway (April 2004)
Current literature on change management, systems thinking, and organizational development can explain not only the real and perceived problems with the implementation of the NCLB Act, but also its mixed reviews. A brief overview of the implementation of the NCLB initiative and the basics of relevant change management theory serves as a foundation for an assessment of the problems in implementing the NCLB Act. An examination of the NCLB Act's negative impact on schools and possible solutions through the application of change management models is explored. Viewing the various stakeholders as a corporate entity supports the validity of change management strategies, such as the use of focus groups, to make the NCLB Act work. The connection between organizational controls and change management and how they can work together to ensure success point to possible reasons for the problems encountered in the federal government's initiative. The final section offers insights and suggestions for strategies that may more successfully facilitate educational reform in the United States.
A Change Management, Systems Thinking, or Organizational Development Approach to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)
The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has met with mixed reviews from school administrators, educators, and education researchers responsible for implementing it (Archer, 2003; Reform Standards Penalize Diverse Schools, 2003). While the act is generally viewed as well intentioned, it has also been characterized as difficult to implement. The application of change management theories to the implementation of the act might explain this negative response. Change management suggests that two-way communication within clear power structures, along with implementation strategies, is necessary for systematic changes to occur within an organization. Resources and supervision must be brought to bear for any change to take effect. However, when mandating the NCLB Act, the federal government gave control of effecting these changes to the states without fully funding the act or arranging for the change process to be overseen. If academic change is to be federally wrought, it may be necessary to overhaul the entire public education system providers so that the state hierarchy is responsive to federal demands and falls under the direct supervision of a national department of policy and curriculum.
NCLB Implementation: An Overview
The NCLB Act builds on prior educational reforms that include the setting of higher standards through rigorous standardized testing and sporadic financial investment in education (Annett, 2003; Business Roundtable Panel, 2003; Hoyer: On No Child Left Behind, 2004). The goal of the NCLB is to move these reforms forward by ensuring that every American child develops the core academic skills needed to participate in today's highly competitive and technologically sophisticated global economy. Even though it has been presented as a radical change, the NCLB is essentially a reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act and reflects a continuation of educational testing trends previously established.
Those in education have expressed both doubt and praise about the NCLB's ability to achieve its goals and realize success. Archer's (2003) report of the Public Agenda survey, which polled 925 school leaders and 1,006 district administrators, provided mostly negative commentary, although there was broad acceptance of the general movement to raise standards for student performance, and survey respondents held positive views of the act's focus on reading instruction and on its goal of helping student groups habitually at scholastic risk.
Change Management Theory, Systems Thinking,
Change management, systems thinking, and organizational development concepts can provide insight into the negative reactions of survey participants. Such concepts can also provide appropriate models for addressing these concerns in a meaningful and proactive way.
and Organizational Development: An Overview
Change management is essentially a communication strategy that reduces user anxieties and concerns to generate acceptance of change. There are a number of models for change management from the field of organizational development that can be applied to government agencies. The best-known planned-change processes are a result of work by Kurt Lewin (Burnes, 1996); these include the Action Research, Three-Step, and Emergent models. It should be noted that these planned-approach models view change as a basic process of shifting from one permanent state to another through a sequence of steps (Argyris, 1993; Jones, 1995; Melbourne, 2003).
Assessing the Problem Using Change Management Theories
Many of the specifics of the NCLB initiative were of major concern to the respondents in the Archer article. In the Public Agenda survey sample, nearly nine out of ten administrators believed the law represented an unfunded mandate. About one-third of the sample doubted that the requirements of the federal law could be met. “Although most respondents cited lack of money as their greatest concern, more than 80 percent of the administrators indicated some agreement. . .that. . .mandates. . .take up way too much time” (Archer, 2003, p.4). One of the basic tenets in change management literature is that without adequate resources in terms of money, trained staff, and a realistic time frame, changes cannot occur. There is, therefore, some merit to this complaint concerning lack of adequate funding to implement the changes outlined in the act. A recent report by Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (2004) was very critical of the NCLB Act with regard to financing the initiatives. In Hoyer's view, a failing grade should be given to the Bush administration for not providing proper funding right from the start, as promised. Hoyer argues that the NCLB has been underfunded by $7.5 billion in fiscal year 2004. This type of underfunding has real-world consequences, especially in terms of the development and training of teachers. The act does, seems to, provide excessive new federal funding for schools, including about $10.4 billion for certain core subjects and $3 billion for teacher training. The NCLB also requires the development and implementation of testing that is estimated to cost about $7 billion to be functional, only $400 million of the testing costs coming from the federal government (Delisio, 2002). In essence, the government gives states billions for specific, mandated core programs but requires them to spend billions more to develop testing to prove the worth of those programs. Testing expense leaves the states with approximately $3.8 billion to spend on schools, forcing further cuts of approximately $7 billion in non-core areas in order to fund a testing program that some characterize as “statistical game playing” that only leads to “a kind of counterfeit accountability, one that sorts and labels kids on the basis of multiple choice questions as a substitute for educating them. . .” (Karp, 2004).
The Emergent Model (Burnes, 1996) of change management perceives organizational development and change as continuous and unpredictable, a process of realigning an organization to its changing environment (Burnes, 1996; Miller, 1998). The role of the senior person, in this case the federal government, is to make sure framework, supplies, required skills, and motivation are available and in place to carry out change. The application of the Emergent Model in the implementation of the NCLB Act would have ensured that the federal government understood and was actively committed to its role as a supplier of funds and training.
While the NCLB's aims are laudable, they have been imposed upon educators without directly involving them in the process of change and without providing them with the transitional tools needed to ensure success. Lewin's Three-Step Model outlines a structure for comprehending the methods of change (Argyris, 1993) that could benefit educators grappling with the practical matters of how to make the act work. In general terms, this model involves unfreezing, analysis and identification of alternatives, and refreezing. For example, in a confrontation meeting, those concerned must be convinced of the need for change (unfreezing). After accepting that, participants analyze the situation and identify alternatives. Finally, refreezing involves absorbing and embracing the new changes as they occur (Burnes, 1996).
The Three-Step Model could be applied to the issue of teacher tenure. In the unfreezing mode, government representatives (Sponsors) meet with school administrators (Change Agents) and the teachers' union (Change Target) to look at the importance of ensuring a successful school in order to maintain funding. When teaching is effective, stakeholders are motivated not to change schools. Sponsors, Change Agents, and Change Targets agree that effective teaching, motivated students, funding, and successful schools represent worthwhile goals. At this level of discussion comes recognition that change is essential to ensure these benefits. All options are considered, including the possibility of doing away with tenure. To save the tenure program, the Change Target may see the benefits of mandatory retraining workshops, testing of teachers, and incentives to stay abreast of new methods. During the implementation of the changes, or refreezing mode, administrators are supportive of the teachers and provide the necessary opportunities for attendance at career-enhancing workshops. The level of dissatisfaction among educators recorded in the Archer article would suggest that this type of model could have great benefits.
Negative Impact of the NCLB Act
B. R. Cravey (2003), a writer for the Florida Times Union, a leading newspaper in Duval County, Florida, pointed out the NCLB's negative effect on schools, especially on teachers. As a writer covering one of the largest school districts in the U.S., Cravey observed that school staffing would be greatly disrupted within schools that did not meet NCLB standards within two years. Cravey pointed out that for those schools that did not meet NCLB standards three years in a row, supplemental school services would have to be offered, which would impact funding. If the school's problems continued for four years, sanctions could be enforced against the offending school, which could include replacing school staff and appointing an outside expert to supervise the school. In fact, the state could assume administration of the school.
Systems thinking, one element of change management, means considering the cause-effect relationship of decisions. In the scenario envisioned by Cravey, systems thinking could provide an understanding of the negative impact of such sanctions and could suggest ways to achieve the stated goals through positive reinforcement. According to Peter M. Senge (1994), the essence of systems thinking is a change of mind: understanding interactions rather than cause-effect chains and viewing the mode of change rather than one moment in time. The application of systems thinking to the implementation of the NCLB can be seen in the following hypothetical (but typical) story. Two neighboring schools have different ratings: One fails and one passes. Students from the failing school are allowed to transfer to the passing school, which should theoretically have the effect of helping the transferring students to a better education. Instead, it has the effect of making the failing school lose money (therefore its potential for success), while giving the passing school an unmanageable influx of failing students, swamping the school's economic means, and bringing down their test scores. In the end, both schools may end up failing. In many cases this is not remedied by the state or district but is covered up so that schools can continue to receive federal funding. For example, states such as Michigan, Colorado, and Texas have already significantly reduced their minimum passing grade requirements (Karp, 2004).
Other problems could occur under this plan of permitting students to transfer from failing schools to better performing ones. “A local education agency (LEA) may not use lack of capacity to deny students the option to transfer” (Education World, 2003). Teachers and students alike would be shifted from one school to another, and there would be an increase in costs as it became necessary to hire more teachers than projected and to expand existing buildings and classrooms. Building additions are so overwhelmingly expensive that higher-performing schools might be forced to cut budgets and programs to accommodate an influx of students. Not only would district funding costs change drastically, but schools that already face a major challenge to remove or replace an inadequate teacher would have a difficult task made even more complex (Archer, 2003).
The introduction of a consultant before the situation deteriorated to the point where sanctions must be imposed would be one way of ensuring a more positive response to the initiatives of the NCLB Act. Consultants could work with schools that have chosen to be role models for change. This approach would formally address issues, such as teacher tenure, which make change implementation difficult and would help develop new strategies for reaching the required goals.
The previously mentioned Action Research Model, as a method of planned change, usually involves a senior person from the place where the change will occur and a Change Agent (e.g. a consultant or role model). After careful consideration of the entire system, a team works interactively to diagnose the problem under consideration. The change agent's responsibilities vary depending on what is needed to drive change. The agent can serve as the generator of a crisis (which would impel individuals to seek change) or simply help in the alteration of the existing changes (Burnes, 1996). The Action Research Model would suggest that representatives of the federal government who understood the entirety of the NCLB Act should serve as consultants to work with educators to diagnose problems and come up with coherent solutions. The need for change, and the desire for change, would have to be communicated by these agents, who could then work to facilitate and regulate the ddesired changes. Such agents could also outline goals for the schools and create financial plans for the districts and states to meet the testing and educational demands of the act. Instead of the NCLB Act being perceived as a threat, successful use of such change management models could ensure the coordination and cooperation of educators with government agencies, allowing the schools to achieve their goal of improving the education system and leaving no child behind.
Corporations and Change Management
According to change management theory, an organization is defined as two or more individuals or entities working in concert to achieve a common goal (Jones, 1995). Using this definition, when the federal and state governments cooperate with (or give directions to) the school districts, the whole conglomerate may be considered a single entity. Thus, theories of change management that have worked at the corporate and executive level can be applied to the development of school policies. The NCLB-mandated changes certainly apply as having an affect on the accountability structure of the education superstructure. In addition to creating strict standards for accountability, the NCLB gives far more power of the daily control of the school system to the federal government and national bureaucracies. The NCLB Act is, in fact, a form of organizational change, both of accountability and of power structure. Because it is a vast sort of change, it must be treated with finesse and sensitivity to ensure success. Failure to consider all the stakeholders as a corporate entity and from there to apply the communication benefits of change management theories have resulted in the disaffection described in the Archer report.
Change management theory posits that co-alignment and cooperation are central to the existence of an organization, and the true key to change is adequate preparation at every level. The agency that is prepared will adapt to small changes and overcome larger ones (Summers, 2004). One of the fundamental problems with the NCLB is that in some ways it attempts a regime change (passing power from the state to the federal level) while it attempts educational reform. This reasonably creates tension between various strata of power and threatens the co-alignment and cooperation of teaching staff. No amount of written or verbal preparation can overcome the frustration of a teacher or school district that is restricted in its choice of topics or depth of study by arbitrary outside standards. As Christine de Vita says, teachers
“. . .need the ability to allocate staff, time, and resources to those things that are essential to driving student learning” (Archer, 2003). Preparation and a better understanding of the impact of change could help with the transition.
Corporate organizations typically use focus groups, interviews, presentations, and demonstrations to explain new systems, because a good change presentation will “highlight the benefits to the users; provide a forum in which management can present the reasons for choosing the new system and detail its benefits to the organization; address user questions that relate to functional and procedural changes; and outline the user training and support program that will be provided” (Sterling Resources, 2000, p. 1). In the Archer report, administrators expressed concern about the perceived amount of red tape from all government levels, which “. . .impedes efforts to raise student performance” (Archer, 2003). Groups made up of teachers and administrators could address this issue by inviting feedback from educators concerning specific changes they have had to make in their daily routine as a result of the implementation of the act. Moving away from the level of general griping to an analysis of the creation of more efficient procedures to deal with higher government involvement (including the possible use of additional support staff), coupled with a discussion of the overall benefits of the changes, might lessen the amount of dissatisfaction. Each focus group could share the results of its discussions with other schools with a view to seeking more input in the search for creative solutions to the paperwork problem.
Change Management and Control
The NCLB Act has consistently been presented to the American public as a measure to save our failing schools. There is in the rhetoric surrounding the act, some degree of antagonism towards the educational structure. This may threaten lines of communication and put educators on the defensive against change strategies. A good change presentation would be more interactive, more focused on the benefits for the school (rather than on the punitive measures meant to force the schools into compliance), and on encouraging interaction. The best sort of control, one might say, is that which makes the desired change appear voluntary.
Control is, of course, always fundamental to the essence of an organization (Argyris, 1992; Schein, 1991). In a formal context, organizational control is the process of influencing individuals (or agencies) to behave in ways that increase the probability of attaining the stated organizational goals and objectives. In other words, change management and control are not mutually exclusive. When applied successfully, the four levels of control that impact change management strategy—external environment, organizational culture, organizational structure, and the formal reward system—provide a smoother path to the necessary change (David, 1999; Miller, 1998). The federal government, in passing this Act, sought to create a formal punitive system as a form of control (through sanctions of failing schools), it but failed to address issues of organizational culture and structure that might interfere with the desired changes, and it also failed to adequately address the external environmental pressures such as those exerted by parents, communities, and the students themselves.
From the views of change management theory, a few basic conclusions may be drawn that all revolve around this central problem: Through this act, and previous similar legislation over the last forty years, a fundamental change in organizational control structure has taken place without the simultaneous development of mutual communication and responsibilities. To be more precise, the federal government has taken an increased degree of control over what schools teach and over their funding, but it still maintains the illusion that school districts have independent self-governance, demonstrating that any sort of comprehensive planned-change strategy has not been undertaken.
As a consequence, resentment and tension has been created between various strategically aligned organizational elements such as teachers' unions, school boards, parents who seek control, and school administrators, who are competing for limited funds. This resentment has caused many schools and states to be less than enthusiastic about following the demands of the NCLB Act. This problem has also led to the complete failure of the NCLB Act to invoke a comprehensive planned-change strategy of any sort, whether that is through change agents or emergent change.
The NCLB Act has been perfectly clear in communicating what it wants—the end results of the change—but has given to the states and school districts the responsibility to make this happen without simultaneously giving them a comprehensive vision of how such change is to be effected or by providing sufficient resources to cause this change. Instead, the NCLB Act has embraced accountability without mentorship, and punitive measures without guidance or balanced rewards for those who succeed. Related to this lack of a strategy and lack of coherent leadership, those lawmakers charged with enforcing the Act have also failed to communicate with schools in terms of hearing their responses and adapting to real-life applications of their demands. Part of the problem associated with the unhappy superintendents and principals included in Archer's 2003 report may relate to the absence of an effective communication model, whereby those most affected by change have the least opportunity for input. The act fails to take into account external pressures in the environment and organizational structures and lacks a systems cause-and-effect analysis of the results of either the accountability measures or the guidelines for student transfers and teacher education. In short, the NCLB Act has seized control of the system but has failed to become a coherent leader, and has become both out of touch and quietly oppressive because of its lack of consistent interaction with the system it claims to be regulating.
Suggested Strategy for Facilitating Educational Reform in the United States
In theory, the outlook for NCLB is not bleak. School leaders have accepted the general principles behind the new law because most see it as a positive step that builds upon the work of the Clinton administration. Mere communication of goals and insistence on change would do very little to create change within a system if that change were perceived to be a bad one. Luckily, the changes required in the NCLB Act are not perceived to be inherently bad. Annett (2003) agrees, further noting another positive point: The focus on stronger accountability and the full inclusion of all students has been appreciated. However, as Archer (2003) points out, there are many who simply believe that this law has not been adequately funded and supported.
A strategy based on increased communication that uses external consultants to create change would require a vast bureaucracy of consultants working in a huge, disconnected mess of competing school districts, and the training and deployment of these consultants might well be cost prohibitive. Some balance must be struck between the far-reaching goals of the administration and the lack of resources, and this is indeed a fundamental precept of change management.
Another possible solution, though one that is far more radical in scope, would be to finally and officially consolidate the disorganized and unequal district-styled school system into a single federal system with a consistent curriculum, a single set of testing criteria (thus saving billions on the development of fifty different state-testing criteria), and a single administrative system in which communication and control might be facilitated. Although at present they do not have a coherent organizational structure, school systems and the Department of Education would be able to work in concert for a common goal by combining their efforts. Consolidation would make this new structure more amenable to the application of change management theories that can only be expected to function respectably within organizations with some form of coherent power structure.
While some have suggested engaging private companies to manage failing schools (GAO, 2003), this would only worsen the fragmentation and competition within the system. Although it is often said that when schools compete we all win, in reality it seems that when schools and school districts are competing for limited resources, some students will always be left behind. It is not clear that academic achievement will significantly improve as a result of private management, and empirical research needs to be conducted regarding the success of these schools since companies have assumed management responsibilities.
It would be far more reasonable for the Department of Education to manifest as an organization actually willing to take control of the school system and to personally oversee those schools that are failing. By firmly enforcing high standards, all sub-par schools could eventually come under direct federal control that could then ensure that schools are granted sufficient resources regardless of economic disadvantage or lack of communication. In this scenario, the new administrators themselves, hired by the Department of Education, could serve as trained change agents and guide the new, streamlined educational system into a better day where every child would achieve the best education possible. If the NCLB Act is going to demand change, it seems only reasonable that the burden for directing, managing, and communicating the impetus for that change should fall on the shoulders of the Department of Education instead of the shoulders of the individual states.
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© 2004 Dominique L. Galloway
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