Assessing public sector performance reforms and the plight of disadvantaged citizens.

Author:Patrick, Barbara


Efforts to enhance the quality of public services received by vulnerable citizens have increasingly relied on the use performance management techniques. Most recently Race to the Top allowed to states to compete for over $4 billion based on their ability to expand the use of performance management elements in a manner that enhanced the quality of education receive by vulnerable students. This served as a complement to the more controversial and mandatory No Child Left Behind Act which invested millions of dollars into the development of accountability models that required states to demonstrate significant progress in the performance of vulnerable racial and economic student groups and to provide these students with a higher and more equitable quality of education (Patrick, 2012; Wong, 2008). Like other reform efforts, the legislation focused on performance measures and accountability as effective means for improving vulnerable student outcomes but fail to adequately consider the environment in which measures would be developed and implementation.

Light (2006, 7) noted the importance of environmental considerations as well as the dangers of investing in unsubstantiated claims of performance reform success and posited there needed to be "a moratorium on new reforms until an independent body can complete a detailed examination of just how past reforms have worked." Such an examination is particularly important as it relates to the understudied impact that performance policies have on the lives of the most vulnerable citizens who are largely dependent on elected officials and administrators to create policies that promote equality and efficacy.

Given the significance and understudied impact that performance reform policies have on the lives of vulnerable citizens, this research responds to Light's call by examining the development and sanctioning provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) which targeted the performance of racial minorities, the economically disadvantaged, and other vulnerable student subgroups. More specifically, it assess two questions: did the organizational and political environment influence the strength of states' NCLB subgroup accountability provisions targeting the performance of vulnerable students and does the presence of strong subgroup accountability provisions enhance performance?

Other studies assessing performance management reforms in education have advanced knowledge in this area but encountered limitations in their ability to adequately captured policymakers' efforts to target the performance of vulnerable racial and economically disadvantaged groups. Patrick and French's (2011) informative study assessed general, not subgroup NCLB accountability provision and found no significant increase in performance under the legislation. By neglecting to include subgroup accountability provisions, they limited the ability to assess NLCB's primary goal of targeting the performance of vulnerable students. Carnoy (2005) developed and accountability measure largely capturing states' efforts to primarily hold students, not teachers and administrators, accountable under the Clinton Administration and found a weak negative relationship between strong state accountability systems and graduation and progression rates. Hanushek and Raymond (2003) three group state classification system found that as states moved from no accountability to implementing some form of rewards and sanctions test scores improved. These and other studies (Nichols et. al., 2005; Carnoy and Loeb, 2002; Swanson and Stevenson, 2002; Braun, 2004) assessed education accountability but encountered limitations due to some states not operating under a functional accountability model targeting teachers and administrators in general, and not holding them accountable for vulnerable students' performance specifically.

Building on these studies (Patrick, 2012; Patrick and French, 2011; Carnoy and Loeb, 2002; Nichols et al., 2005), our research assesses the strength of performance management reforms by capturing pertinent policy provisions of NCLB that required states to present a student population in which 100 percent of racial minority and other vulnerable subgroups were proficient in selected subjects within a specified timeframe. Though federal guidelines required that states incrementally enhance the outcomes of targeted student groups, each state incorporated safe harbor provisions that manipulated vulnerable student outcomes. The use of such techniques undermined the assumption that meaningful provisions would be developed.

The elements included in the index measuring subgroup accountability strength are the use of a 75 percent confidence interval in reporting subgroup scores, a 10 percent rule, uniform averaging of scores, substituting measures of outcomes, and the type of trajectory system each state selected. The article begins with an overview of performance reforms including those associated with NCLB. It proceeds to discuss the performance index and data analysis and concludes with implication for performance reform use.


Research has shown that racial minorities and economically disadvantaged students tend to receive a lower quality of education than their more affluent counterparts (Ryzin et al, 2004; Ainsworth, 2002; Wilson, 1996). Scholars have offered an array of reasons for the disparity. Some examples include socioeconomic factors such as poverty, school funding formulas, parent education and involvement, a lack of community involvement in the educational process, low student participation and morale, and historical inequality (Belfield & Levin, 2007; Barton, 2003; Henderson & Mapp, 2002). Though each of these factors are not without merit, recently performance management advocates have proposed that poor educational outcomes among racial minorities and other vulnerable student groups may be attributed to disaffected educators and administrators (Wong, 2008). Terry Moe (2003) posited compliance accountability models in education have allowed the wrong type of employees to linger in the system (Hurst et al, 2003; Rudalevige, 2003). These employees, who are described as being self-interested, unmotivated, job security conscious, and concerned only with maintaining the status quo (Moe, 2003) adversely affects outcomes and impairs relationships between the community and the school.

Cooper's (2005) interviews with low income African American parents offer support for Moe's hypothesis by highlighting the overwhelming sense of frustration shared among respondents who believed teachers in their poorly performing public schools were disaffected and did not care about the students. They welcomed the opportunity to seek the services of alternative providers; a finding that was made more evident by Fruchter (2007), Apple (2001), Frankenberg and Lee (2003), Allen and Jewel (1995), and Peterson (1999) who noted that minority parents' frustration with the quality of public schools caused them to desire increased accountability for educators, a voice within their children's schools, and the opportunity to exercise choice among competing educational entities. Archbald (2004) and Saporito's (2003) work on neoliberal education reforms also noted that parents in high poverty areas sought to engage in school choice programs that might potentially enhance the quality of education their children received.

Lubienski (2002) offers additional evidence of disparities with the notation that teachers of white students were more likely to be more innovative and incorporate meaningful techniques such as the use of calculators and analytical exams in the classroom than the teachers of minority students. Stein (2004) also captures the growing sentiment and calls for reforms by surmising that public education accountability models have experienced a policy shift from the belief that poor and minority students and families were considered a problem to which schools provided the solution to an environment where teachers are viewed as the problem (Little and Bartlett, 2010). The sentiment has particularly flourished under reforms that increase the federal government's role in education administration by replacing traditional notions of compliance and bureaucratic accountability with the principal agent theory's adaptation of performance accountability.

Principal Agent Theory and Performance Reforms

Under the principal agent theory the principal, who is often limited by time and expertise, hires an agent to perform a task on his behalf. If the agent fails to complete the task in the most efficient and effective manner, the principal may seek recourse in the form of financial sanctions. In the public school arena, citizen induced sanctions for poor performance has been limited, especially for low income and minority parents. Federal policymakers have sought to remedy the problem by requiring states to incorporate neoliberal reforms such as performance accountability provisions that may serve as a contract between educators and members of at risk populations (Little and Bartlett, 2010; Wong, 2008). While these performance reforms aim to empower parents with information and enhance student outcomes, their ability to deliver results has raised several questions. The most pertinent and understudied being the assumption that elected, appointed, and hired state agents have disregarded concerns for their own reelection bids and job security and developed meaningful performance accountability reforms that ensure transparency, report accurate results, and hold agents more directly accountable for enhancing service quality and outcomes for vulnerable citizens.

Julnes and Holzer (2001), Ho and Ni (2005), and Berman and Wang (2000) all raise concern for this assumption with the notation that governmental entities tended to adopt less informative output measures compared to...

To continue reading