Tag: elementary and secondary education

Unfortunately, One Man’s “Paranoia” Is Everyone Else’s “Reality”

Finished with my woman
‘Cause she couldn’t help me with my mind
People think I’m insane
Because I am frowning all the time

- Black Sabbath, “Paranoid”

According to the Fordham Institute’s Chester Finn, I and others like me are “paranoid.” So why, like Ozzy Osbourne, am I “frowning all the time?” Because I look at decades of public schooling reality and, unlike Finn, see the tiny odds that “common” curriculum standards won’t become federal standards, gutted, and our crummy education system made even worse.

Finn’s rebuttal to my NRO piece skewering the push for national standards, unfortunately, takes the same tack he’s used for months: Assert that the standards proposed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative are better than what most states have produced on their own; say that adopting them is “voluntary;” and note that we’ve got to do something to improve the schools.

Let’s go one by one:

First, as Jay Greene has pointed out again and again, the objection to national standards is not that the proposed CCSSI standards are of poor quality (though not everyone, certainly, agrees with Finn’s glowing assessment of them). The objection is that once money is attached to them – once the “accountability” part of “standards and accountability” is activated – they will either be dumbed down or just rendered moot by a gamed-to-death accountability system. 

This kind of objection, by the way, is called “thinking a few steps ahead,” not “paranoia.”

It’s also called “learning from history.” By Fordham’s own, constant admission, most states have cruddy standards, and one major reason for this is that special interests like teachers’ unions – the groups most motivated to control public schooling politics because their members’ livelihoods come from the public schools – get them neutered. 

But if centralized, government control of standards at the state level almost never works, there is simply no good reason to believe that centralizing at the national level will be effective. Indeed, it will likely be worse with the federal government, whose money is driving this, in charge instead of states, and parents unable even to move to one of the handful of states that once had decent standards to get an acceptable education.

Next, let’s hit the the “voluntary” adoption assertion. Could we puh-leaze stop with this one! Yes, as I note in my NRO piece, adoption of the CCSSI standards is technically voluntary, just as states don’t have to follow the No Child Left Behind Act or, as Ben Boychuk points out in a terrific display of paranoia, the 21-year-old legal drinking age. All that states have to do to be free is “voluntarily” give up billions of federal dollars that came from their taxpaying citizens whether those citizens liked it or not! 

So right now, if states don’t want to sign on to national standards, they just have to give up on getting part of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund. And very likely in the near future, if President Obama has his way, they’ll just have to accept not getting part of about $14.5 billion in Elementary and Secondary Education Act money.

Some voluntarism….

Finally, there’s the “we’ve got to do something to fix the schools” argument. I certainly agree that the education system needs fixing. My point is that it makes absolutely no sense to look at fifty centralized, government systems, see that they don’t work, and then conclude that things would be better if we had just one centralized, government system. And no, that other nations have national standards proves nothing: Both those nations that beat us and those that we beat have such standards.

The crystal clear lesson for those who are willing to see it is that we need to decentralize control of education, especially by giving parents control over education funding, giving schools autonomy, and letting proven, market-based standards and accountability go to work. 

Oh, right.  All this using evidence and logic is probably just my paranoia kicking in again.

 

Federal Aid: 45 Years of Failure

Yesterday, the Washington Post reviewed the life of Phyllis McClure, who was an advocate for federal education spending in low-income neighborhoods.

Once an aspiring journalist, Ms. McClure joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1969. She immediately used her penchant for muckraking to illuminate the widespread misuse of federal funds meant to boost educational opportunities for the country’s neediest students.

The money was part of the new Title I program, created under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The slim volume that Ms. McClure wrote in 1969 with Ruby Martin – ‘Title I of ESEA: Is It Helping Poor Children?’ – showed how millions of dollars across the country were being used by school districts to make purchases – such as a Baptist church building in Detroit and 18 portable swimming pools in Memphis – that had little to do with helping impoverished students.

The authors charged that money meant for poor children was being used illegally by school districts as a welcome infusion of extra cash to meet overhead expenses, raise teacher pay and other such general aid. In addition, they wrote, districts were using Title I funds to continue racial segregation by offering black children free food, medical care, shoes and clothes as long as they remained in predominantly black schools.

That all sounds rather familiar–state and local governments misusing federal aid dollars. As I’ve written about at length, there was an explosion in federal aid for the states in the 1960s, with hundreds of new programs established. But huge problems developed almost immediately–excessive bureaucracy and paperwork, one-size-fits-all federal regulations stifling local innovation, and the inability of federal aid to actually solve any local problems. 

I live in Fairfax County, Virginia. The county receives about $15 million a year in federal “Title I” aid for disadvantaged schools–the program Ms. McClure was worried about. But Fairfax is the highest-income county in the nation! Why are hard-working middle-income taxpayers in, say, Ohio, paying for local schools in ultra-wealthy Fairfax?

Aside from the misallocation problem, academic evidence suggests that state and local governments mainly offset federal spending for poor schools by reducing their own spending on poor schools. Poor schools end up being no further ahead.

The federal aid system is crazy. Even if federal aid is a good idea in theory–and it isn’t–the central planners haven’t been able to make it work as they envisioned in more than four decades. The federal aid system has simply been a giant make-work project for the millions of well-paid federal/state/local administrators who handle all the paperwork and regulations.  

Even if federal aid was constitutional or it made any economic sense, it will never work efficiently. Aid will always be a more wasteful way of funding local activities than if local governments funded activities by themselves. Aid will always be politically misallocated by Congress. Aid will always involve top-down regulations from Washington that reduce local flexibility and innnovation. And aid will always undermine federalism and the American system of limited government.

It’s time to blow up the whole system.  Title 1 and all 800 other state aid programs should be repealed.

Fed Ed on the Move

There’s a lot to learn about what’s going on in federal education policy today, and none of it is good.

First, Steven Brill offers a revealing look at the Race to the Top evaluation process in a piece that can be added to the ever-growing pile of evidence that Race to the Top isn’t even close to the objective – or, I’d add, powerful – catalyst for meaningful reform that the Obama administration insists it is.

Second, it appears that congressional Democrats are preparing to pass a Harkin-proposed, Obama-endorsed, $23 billion bailout for teachers by attaching it to an “emergency” appropriation for the war in Afghanistan. (Passing major – and highly suspect – education legislation by attaching it to something totally unrelated? Sound familiar?) And what’s the nice thing about “emergency” legislation? No need to worry that the outlay would add to our already insane federal deficit; that can’t be allowed to interfere with saving the world (or public schooling lard).

Finally, looming on the horizon is the release of final standards from the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The Obama administration is trying to coerce all states to adopt the standards by linking adoption to Race-to-the-Top competitiveness and, potentially, Elementary and Secondary Education Act funding.

The good news is that on June 2 – potentially the very day the standards will be released – you can catch what has sadly been a rarity so far in the push for national standards: a real debate about whether national standards will actually improve educational outcomes.  My answer is that there is no meaningful evidence that national standards drive superior results, but joining me to debate that right here at Cato will be the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke, Sandra Boyd of Achieve, Inc., and the Fordham Foundation’s Michael Petrilli. It will be a debate that must be replicated across the country before we make any further move to adopt one standard for every public school in America. You can register here to see our debate live, or catch it online at Cato.org.

The feds are on the move in education, and the more we learn about their plans, the more obvious it is that they must be stopped.

Run Away from ‘Common’ Education Standards

A couple of days ago, Fordham Institute president Chester Finn declared on NRO that conservatives should embrace new, national education standards from the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Today I respond to him on The Corner, and let’s just say it’s clear that neither conservatives, nor anybody else, should embrace national standards.

Oh, one more thing: I shouldn’t have to keep saying this to savvy Washington insiders like the folks at Fordham, but when the federal government bribes states with their own citizens’ tax money to do something, doing that thing is hardly voluntary, at least in any reasonable sense. 

For more wise thoughts on the national standards issue, check out this interview with Jay Greene, and this Sacramento Bee piece by Ben Boychuk.  Oh, and this interview with yours truly.

Obama’s Education Proposal Still a Bottomless Bag

This morning the Obama Administration officially released its proposal for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka, No Child Left Behind). The proposal is a mixed bag, and still one with a gaping hole in the bottom.

Among some generally positive things, the proposal would eliminate NCLB’s ridiculous annual-yearly-progress and “proficiency” requirements, which have driven states to constantly change standards and tests to avoid having to help students achieve real proficiency.  It would also end many of the myriad, wasteful categorical programs that infest the ESEA, though it’s a pipedream to think members of Congress will actually give up all of their pet, vote-buying programs.

On the negative side of the register, the proposed reauthorization would force all states to either sign onto national mathematics and language-arts standards, or get a state college to certify their standards as “college and career ready.”  It would also set a goal of all students being college and career ready by 2020. But setting a single, national standard makes no logical sense because all kids have different needs and abilities; no one curriculum will ever optimally serve but a tiny minority of students.

Also, on the (VERY) negative side of the register, Obama’s budget proposal would increase ESEA spending by $3 billion from last year – for a total of $28.1 billion – to pay for all of the ESEA reauthorization’s promises of incentives and rewards. That’s $3 billion more that the utterly irresponsible spenders in Washington simply do not have, and that would do nothing to improve outcomes.

Even if this proposal were loaded with nothing but smart, tough ideas, it would ultimately fail for the same reason that top-down control of government schools has failed for decades. Teachers, administrators, and education bureaucrats make their livelihoods from public schooling, and hence spend more time and money on education lobbying and politicking than anyone else. That makes them by far the most powerful forces in public schooling, and what they want for themselves is what we’d all want in their place if we could get it: lots of money and no accountability to anyone.

As long as such asymmetrical power distribution is the case – and it’s inherent to “democratic” control of education – no proposal, no matter how initially tough, is likely to make any long-term improvements. As the matrix below lays out, no matter what combination of standards and accountability you have, politics will eventually lead to poor outcomes. It’s a major reason that the history of government schooling is strewn with “get-tough” laws that ultimately spend lots of money but produce no meaningful improvements, and it’s a powerful argument for the feds complying with the Constitution and getting out of education.

When all is said and done, you can throw all the great things you want into the federal education bag, but as long as politicians are making the decisions you’ll always come up empty.

School Choice Advocates: Beware Washington

The Brookings Institution will release a new school choice policy guide on February 2nd, and from the sound of it, children, parents, taxpayers, and the authors themselves should be concerned.  The guide will provide:

a series of practical and novel recommendations for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, including national chartering of virtual education providers; expanding the types of information collected on school performance; providing incentives for low-performing school districts to increase choice and competition; and creating independent school choice portals to aid parents in choosing between schools.

The goals these recommendations are meant to achieve are entirely laudable, but there are three reasons for serious concern:

1)  The Constitution delegates to the federal government no power to provide or regulate education services, except in the execution of its explicitly enumerated powers. So the Supreme Court can ensure that state education programs abide by the Fourteenth Amendment, for example, but Congress cannot “charter virtual education providers.” Of course the federal government has been transgressing the limits on its education powers for more than half a century, but no one who supports the rule of law can condone that transgression, much less its expansion.

2)  From a regulatory standpoint, Washington is the worst level of government at which to implement an education program. National education programs impose a single set of rules on every participating provider in the country. Get those rules wrong – either up front or down the road – and you not only hobble the effectiveness of every single provider, but you eliminate the possibility of comparing outcomes between providers operating under different sets of rules. In essence you lose the ability to distinguish between different “treatments” – to determine what helps and what is harmful to the service’s overall success.

3)  We have ample evidence about the quality of education programs implemented by the federal government. For example, after 45 years and $166 billion, Head Start has just been proven entirely ineffective. (See also the NCLB paper linked to in “1)”, above). Once again, this problem is exacerbated by the all-encompassing nature of federal programs. Get them wrong and you get them wrong for every participating student, everywhere in the country. With variation in programs among states, by contrast, we not only have the ability to compare the merits of alternative approaches, we have powerful incentives for states to get their programs right. Just as tax competition drives businesses from one state or nation to another, so, too, can education policy competition. States with better policies will attract businesses and more mobile residents from states with worse ones, eventually compelling the inferior policy states to redress their errors.  We’re just beginning to see the prospects for this now, as school choice programs proliferate and grow at the state level, and introducing national programs that might well interfere with this process would be a disastrous mistake.

I hope that school choice advocates, including those who have contributed to the forthcoming Brookings report, will weigh these concerns.