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Press Release · July 15, 2009

NCLB Increases Accountability of School Boards, Principals in California

SAN FRANCISCO, California, July 15, 2009 — The federal No Child Left Behind Act has made local school board members and principals more accountable for improving students’ academic progress — a key goal of the law — a study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) concludes.

California voters are more likely to re-elect their local school board members if schools meet goals for student achievement mandated by the law, and districts in California are more likely to demote principals whose schools repeatedly fail to meet the targets. However, there is no evidence that the law has succeeded in making district superintendents more accountable for student achievement.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is intended to improve students’ academic achievement by defining the primary goals of schools and districts — as measured by standardized test results — and holding officials accountable for meeting the goals. The PPIC study looks at the re-election rates of school board members and the salaries and turnover rates of principals and superintendents in California to assess how effective these accountability programs have been. It finds:

  • In districts that meet NCLB’s “adequate yearly progress” targets for student achievement, incumbent school board members are more likely to be re-elected than would have been the case before NCLB.
  • In schools that have been sanctioned for repeatedly failing to make adequate yearly progress, principals are more likely to be demoted than would have been the case before NCLB. However, there is no evidence that changes in principals’ salaries are linked to the academic achievement of their students.
  • Neither the salaries nor retention rates of superintendents are related to student achievement in their districts.

“NCLB gives voters and parents a clear measure of how students are doing and a way to judge schools and districts. The threat of sanctions may also be a factor in increasing accountability,” says S. Eric Larsen, PPIC research fellow and author of the study.

Taken together, the study’s results point to ways in which NCLB can be improved when Congress considers reauthorizing it. Among the recommendations:

  • Improve the information available to voters. Test results reflect the students who live in a district as well as the effectiveness of the officials who run it. Low achievement may be attributable to the low socioeconomic status of a district’s students, rather than poor management. An accountability system based on growth in student achievement, rather than on a percentage of students reaching a specific target, would provide voters with better information about the effectiveness of the governing board and administrators.
  • Refocus NCLB sanctions on school boards rather than schools and districts. These governing boards have a better understanding of conditions in their districts and are better positioned to decide the most appropriate interventions and sanctions for schools and administrators. Sanctions imposed on school boards would hold these officials—and the voters who elect them—accountable for making wise choices.
  • Help school boards determine the best way to improve student achievement. NCLB should provide more support to rigorous evaluation of promising interventions.

The study was supported with funding from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


The Public Policy Institute of California is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. As a private operating foundation, PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.