Tag: ed balls

Education Reform’s Moon Shot Moonshine

In today’s Washington Post, education secretary Arne Duncan describes the administration’s $4.5 billion “Race to the Top” fund as “education reform’s moon shot” — a watershed undertaking that will transform the way children learn and dramatically improve outcomes. No doubt he believes that. But since he also seems to believe that he brought about dramatic academic gains in Chicago — something that I and others have shown is not the case — the secretary’s beliefs should be taken with a grain of salt.

“Race to the Top” funds will be used to reward states that pursue education policies favored by Duncan and President Obama, and, by extension, to punish states that don’t. It is obedience training writ large. States that Duncan felt were going in the wrong direction in recent weeks, like Rhode Island, were rapped on the nose: keep it up, and we’ll withhold millions in education funding kibbles, they were told. States like Colorado have already been brought to heel. “We all know Colorado needs this money,” Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien told the Washington Post, and she and other state officials have poured over Duncan’s every word to ensure that they follow his commands to the letter.

And what commands Duncan and Obama are giving! High on their agenda is bringing the nation’s schools into lock step when it comes to standards and testing. They promise, with little evidence, that this will drive educational excellence. Meanwhile, just this month, British schools secretary Ed Balls terminated that nation’s decade-long national math and reading strategies, saying that: “I think the right thing for us to do now is to move away from what has historically been a rather central view of school improvement through national strategies.” If central planning were a panacea for education, why are the Brits — who have years of experience with it — turning away from it?

And if the president and his education secretary really cared about evidence-driven education reform, they would not have decided to kill the D.C. opportunity scholarships program that gives low income families in the nation’s capital access to private schools. Children in that program for three years read two grade levels ahead of their peers who remained in public schools. And that’s according to Duncan’s own Department of Education.

Obama and Duncan may well train state education leaders to follow their commands, but there’s no reason to believe those commands will improve American schools.

Duncan Balls

It seems U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan and British schools secretary Ed Balls disagree on the merits of national standards. While Duncan has said that homogenizing educational standards nationwide is his single most important goal while in office, Balls has just pulled the plug on the U.K.’s 10 year experiment with national reading and math strategies. He told the media:

I think the right thing for us to do now is to move away from what has historically been a rather central view of school improvement through national strategies to something which is essentially being commissioned not from the centre but by schools themselves.

The problem with saying that every 5th grader in the nation should learn the same things at the same time is that all 5th graders are not created equal. Some are better at math than reading. Some the reverse. Some are quick learners across the board. Some are slower. To deny this is ridiculous, but to acknowledge it is to admit that homogenized standards in a system that groups students rigidly by age is educational malpractice.

Even if kids were all identical automatons, national standards wouldn’t drive excellence. It is the incentive structure of the free enterprise system that has driven progress in all the fields that have actually progressed – not externally-imposed standards.

What America needs for an educational renaissance is to release schools and families from the shackles of monopoly, and re-inject the freedom and incentives that kindle innovation and efficiency. Sitting 50 million Jills and Johnnies down on a conveyor belt that drags them all through their studies at the same pace makes no sense.