Myth Dodger

Every Sunday, the Washington Post lets someone bust five myths about some public-policy matter. Most recently, the buster—or shall I say dodger—was Chester E. Finn Jr., President of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, who addressed five contentious accusations about the No Child Left Behind Act. Why “dodger”? Because rather than directly address the myths, in most cases Finn offered either tangential, deceptive, or just plain inaccurate responses. Let’s look at the five myths and Finn’s answers to them, but rather than go in the order that Finn listed the myths, let’s work from the smallest dodge to the largest.

Least-dodged myth: We begin at the end of Finn’s list, with Finn attacking the notion that “certified teachers are better than non-certified teachers.” Finn argues that “there’s no solid evidence that state teacher certification ensures classroom effectiveness,” and here he’s right on the money. In fact, I wrote the same thing just a few weeks ago.

Getting a little dodgier: In his second entry, Finn disputes the assertion that “No Child Left Behind is egregiously underfunded.” Here he rightly takes issue with constant complaints that NCLB is underfunded because Washington has never spent the full amount authorized under the law. 100 percent of an authorized amount is almost never spent under any law, and Finn correctly points out that “viewed that way, nearly everything born in Washington is underfunded.”

Where Finn runs into trouble is that he fails to directly address another common underfunding complaint: NCLB requires states and districts to do things—write and implement new tests, produce report cards, comply with lots of new rules and regulations—without supplying sufficient funds to pay for them. Finn logically points out that public schools in the U.S. spend nearly $10,000 per-pupil (though it’s more like $11,500 and counting), so they have plenty of money to implement new things, but to directly bust the myth it’s necessary to show that NCLB pays for what it requires.

Mid-way dodge: The third myth Finn addresses is that “setting academic standards will fix U.S. schools.” Finn is a proponent of national standards, so it’s no surprise that he finesses this myth by acknowledging that NCLB encourages states to set low standards while simultaneously suggesting that standards-based reforms can work if “good standards” are in place.

Finn is right about NCLB’s perverse incentives—if schools and states don’t make progress toward 100-percent “proficiency” they are punished, but states define proficiency for themselves—however, its a big leap to imply that government schools will ever put “good standards” in place. Teachers, school administrators, and education bureaucrats who have a strong interest in low, easy-to-meet standards control education politics, which might be why only three states—Massachusetts, California and South Carolina—have standards Finn considers good, and two of these three might soon have their high standards go away.

The runner-up dodge: In the penultimate dodge—and the fourth myth attacked on his list—Finn addresses the belief that “standardized testing required by No Child Left Behind gets in the way of real learning.” Instead of arguing that NCLB’s standardized testing requirements truly don’t get in the way of real learning, Finn argues that if testing is “an honest measure of a solid curriculum” it doesn’t have to get in the way. But based on the “setting academic standards” myth discussed above, we know that states aren’t honestly measuring solid curricula. And then there’s what Finn himself has written: Because NCLB puts all the carrots, sticks, and tests on math and reading, it has pushed other important subjects dangerously close to the margins, most definitely jeopardizing “real learning.”

The Big Dodge: Finn started with his big dodge, and I’ll end with it. Despite all logic and evidence screaming that it is absolutely not a myth that “No Child Left Behind is an unprecedented extension of federal control over schools,” Finn says it is. Why? Because states don’t have to follow the law if they’ll just turn down federal money, and NCLB is really just the latest incarnation of the decades-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

First off, while states do “volunteer” to take federal money, their taxpayers have no choice but to pony the funds up in the first place, which means by following NCLB states are really just getting back hundreds-of-millions of their taxpayers’ dollars. And the notion that because NCLB is the latest permutation of ESEA it isn’t an unprecedented intrusion? Well, the original ESEA was only about 50 pages long, while NCLB occupies more than 600 pages! And the additional 550 sheets aren’t just filled with meaningless doodles or love notes; they contain scads of directives and programs heaped onto the law over decades of reauthorizations, including brand-new NCLB requirements for testing, teacher qualifications, “scientifically-based” reading curricula, etc. In other words, NCLB is absolutely an unprecedented extension of federal power, and no amount of myth-dodging can change that.