So Close, Yet So Far

In today’s New York Times, education historian Diane Ravitch declares that Congress should kill the No Child Left Behind Act and get out of education. Well, almost.

In her piece, Ravitch runs through a litany of problems with NCLB, not the least of which is that the law encourages states to set “proficiency” standards as low as possible, and encourages NCLB supporters like President Bush and Education Secretary Spellings to exaggerate its effectiveness. Ravitch also rightly takes the law to task because through it Congress sets reforms and penalties for bad schools, “which is way beyond its competence.” Unfortunately, she stops short of calling for full federal withdrawal from education, asserting that Washington “is good at collecting and disseminating information,” and declaring the need for “a consistent national testing program in which officials have no vested interest in claiming victory.”

It is actually a very debatable proposition that the feds are good at collecting data – a look at the federal Digest of Education Statistics, for instance, shows some pretty long lags between when data is collected and when it becomes available to the public – but that’s not the big problem with Ravitch’s piece. The big problem is the national testing proposal. Quite simply, as long as we have public schools – meaning, schools run by government – government officials will always, always, always have a vested interest in “claiming victory.” As a result, unless the system is fundamentally changed, no matter how the standards are designed and implemented we will always get lowest-common-denominator outcomes:

  1. Easy standards and tests, voluntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will likely adopt the standards and have little political incentive to lower them. The outcomes, however, will be poor.
  2. Difficult standards and tests, voluntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will have little incentive to adopt the standards and outcomes will be poor.
  3. Easy standards and tests, involuntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will adopt the standards and have little political incentive to lower them. The outcomes, however, will be poor.
  4. Difficult standards and tests, involuntary adoptions: Politicians at all levels will adopt the tests, but will exert constant political pressure to make them easier, just as we’ve seen with NCLB. The outcomes, again, will be poor.

So what’s the solution if not national standards? Fundamentally change the system: Get the feds out of education, and implement universal school choice at state and local levels. Then, since they won’t run the schools, public officials won’t have the same, dangerous, vested interests in the results, and schools that do a bad job will, at last, have a very strong interest in responding to parents, not running to politicians.