Tag: nclb

Good Bye NCLB, Hello ESSA

President Obama has just signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, ending the era of No Child Left Behind. If nothing else, that big majorities of both parties in Congress felt the need to greatly ease federal force in elementary and secondary education – at least overt federal force – is a powerful testament to the breadth of the public backlash against federally driven standardization, testing, and “accountability.” That backlash may well have hit a tipping point thanks to the Common Core, through which the federal government attempted to get states not just to have state curriculum standards and tests, but national standards and tests. In other words, Washington began to influence the specifics of what children across the country would learn.

Is the ESSA much better than NCLB? No, and it could potentially end up taking very little power away from Washington even though the language surrounding it has been all about returning authority to states and districts. But that the rhetoric about the federal role has had to change so greatly is a very encouraging thing.

Of course, the work of getting Washington to obey the Constitution by getting out of education – and of fundamentally changing the education system to one based in freedom – is nowhere near complete. But at least things may be heading in the right direction.

Better Than NCLB? That’s Not Saying Much

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the intended successor to the No Child Left Behind Act, is better than the law it would replace. That is what many analysts are saying as they hail the legislation as a good step in the right direction. But let’s be honest: you couldn’t set a bar much lower than NCLB. And there are some potential problems that could make the ESSA just as dangerous as the law it would supplant.

To be fair, the ESSA is, overall, probably better than NCLB, and it may well have been the best compromise possible given political reality. Most notably, it eliminates NCLB’s uber-intrusive requirement that numerous groups of students make “adequate yearly progress” on state tests lest schools be subject to a cascade of punishments. It also tries to keep the Secretary of Education from requiring the use of specific curriculum standards such as the Common Core, though it should be noted that the Core was pushed not by the letter of NCLB, but funding from the 2009 “stimulus” and Obama administration NCLB waivers that were almost certainly illegal.  

It is in responding to the power grabs of the current administration that the ESSA may fall, in practice, very short of actually eliminating executive – much less federal – control over the public schools. The bill would keep federal requirements that states have curriculum standards – indeed, “challenging” standards – and tests, and hold schools accountable for performance on them. Moreover, while the bill says the Secretary shall not “mandate, direct, control, coerce, or exercise any direction or supervision” over state standards, it also says that the Secretary must approve state accountability plans. In other words, as I’ve written before, it does not appear that the Secretary can state specifically what a plan must have, but the Ed Sec could potentially veto plans that he deems inadequate until – wink, wink – he gets what he wants.

NCLB Compromise Looking Pretty Bad

Is pre-kindergarten part of elementary and secondary education? By definition, no. But according to preliminary reports about what is in a compromise to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act – really, the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – a preschool “competitive grant” program will be added to the law. And that’s just one of several troubling items that will reportedly be in the final legislation.

One hallmark of good lawmaking are laws that are easily understood by the people, and larding on lots of items not germane to the topic of a law is one way to move away from that democratic ideal. Adding pre-k to the ESEA lards on, though as I’ll discuss in a moment, apparently the preschool addition isn’t all that will heavily complicate the legislation.

The bigger problem with expanding federal funding and reach on preschool is that the evidence is preschool has few if any lasting benefits, at least that have been rigorously documented for any large, modern efforts. Infamously, that includes Head Start and Early Head Start, which the federal government’s own studies have found to be largely impotent, and in the case of Early Head Start, potentially detrimental to some groups. The compromise would apparently also keep the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which federal research has also shown to be impotent or even counterproductive, but at least it is k-12.

Opt Out Tests If Child’s a “Mere Creature of the State”

The Common Core War, over the last few months, has been fought on a largely new front: whether students can be forced to take state tests – in the vast majority of cases, Core-aligned tests – or whether parents and students can refuse. It is perhaps an even more fundamental question than whether the federal government may constitutionally coerce standardization and testing generally, and with Common Core, specific standards and tests. The testing battle is to a large extent about whether a child, in seeming opposition to the seminal Supreme Court ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, is indeed a “mere creature of the State.”

The opt-out numbers are hard to pin down, though there is little question that some districts have seen very large percentages while others – probably the large majority nationwide – have seen few. It is also probably reasonable to conclude that the leader of the opt-out crusade has been New York State, where animosity toward the Core has been high since the state first rushed implementation and state officials, in an effort to calm things, actually inflamed them with a condescending approach to public engagement that launched weeks of recriminations. Last year the state saw an estimated 60,000 students opt out, which leapt to nearly 200,000 this year.

The root question, of course, is should students and parents be able to opt out without fear of punishment? And since punishment would be coming from a government institution – yes, that is what a public school is – that means without fear of punishment by the state. If children are, in part, creatures of the state – and Pierce did not say there is no legitimate state role in education – than punishment is legitimate. If, however, the public schools exist to serve fully free citizens, then punishment cannot be meted out for refusing the test; it is up to parents to freely decide whether or not their children are subjected to the tests.

Kill the Whole Jellyfish, or the Tentacles Will Grow

There’s a lot of debate right now about whether conservatives (I don’t know if anyone thinks libertarians can be reached) should support current No Child Left Behind reauthorization efforts. The “support this” argument is that bills in the House and Senate are not ideal because they would keep a major federal role in education, but they would end many bad things in NCLB and conservatives should take what they can get politically. But we just got a terrific illustration of what happens when you cut off just a few jellyfish tentacles: they grow back.

Yesterday, an amendment was passed in the markup of the Senate bill that would restore the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. What is the 21st CCLC? A Clinton Era program that furnishes funds – $1.2 billion in FY 2015 – for before- and after-school activities and summer programs. The problem: It appears to be a failure. As I discussed a few years ago, federal studies of the program found it not only largely ineffectual, but possibly even a negative influence. As a 2005 report summarized:

Conclusions: This study finds that elementary students who were randomly assigned to attend the 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school program were more likely to feel safe after school, no more likely to have higher academic achievement, no less likely to be in self-care, more likely to engage in some negative behaviors, and experience mixed effects on developmental outcomes relative to students who were not randomly assigned to attend the centers.

It isn’t just Cato folk who’ve stumbled on the research. The Brookings Institutions’ Mark Dynarski just laid into the 21st CCLC last month, writing that evaluations “reported on how the program affected outcomes. In a series of reports released between 2003 and 2005…the answers emerged: the program didn’t affect student outcomes. Except for student behavior, which got worse.”

Illegal “No Child” Waivers Should Raise Much Louder Alarms

If the outcry over unilateral executive moves we’ve seen over the last few years remains consistent, Obamacare and immigration are likely to keep sucking up most of Republicans’ attention and the media’s coverage. But just as sweeping have been executive waivers issued from the hated No Child Left Behind Act – really the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – that have been instrumental in connecting numerous states to, among other things, the Common Core national curriculum standards. And yesterday, the Education Department issued guidance offering states the chance to obtain waivers – if they do the administration’s bidding, of course – lasting well into the term of the next president: the 2018-19 school year.

These waivers are almost certainly illegal – even a Congressional Research Service report often cited to suggest the opposite says they are unprecedented in scope and, hence, an untested case – and even if they are not deemed technically illegal, the reality is they still amount to the executive department unilaterally making law. NCLB does grant the Secretary of Education the authority to issue waivers from many parts of the Act, but it grants no authority to condition those waivers on states adopting administration-preferred policies. Indeed, as University of South Carolina law professor Derek W. Black writes in a recent analysis of waivers, not only does NCLB not authorize conditional waivers, even if a court were to read any waiver authorization as implicitly authorizing conditions, the actual conditions attached – “college- and career-ready standards,” new teacher evaluations, etc. – fundamentally change the law. In fact the changes, Black notes, are essentially what the administration proposed in its 2010 “blueprint” to reauthorize NCLB. And quite simply, the executive fundamentally changing a law is not constitutional.

The latest waiver guidance goes beyond even the toxic status quo. Not only is the President using his vaunted pen and phone to unilaterally make education law, but law that would continue well into his successor’s term. It is a very dangerous move that, quite frankly, deserves at least as much alarmed coverage as Obamacare waivers and immigration actions. If for no other reason, because the action is moving us swiftly toward a de facto federal curriculum. In other words, direct control over what the vast majority of the nation’s children learn.

Federal power can’t get much more invasive than that.

Why Are Conservatives Incoherent on Federal Education?

For a nice overview of the counterproductive incoherence of Republican education efforts over the decades, check out this piece by Frederick Hess and Andrew Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute. And for a sense of how confused conservatives remain when they write pieces telling other conservatives how to have “good” federal education policy, read the same piece. Its history section gives you the first part, and, unfortunately, its other sections give you the rest.

Hess and Kelly – who are generally pretty sharp – furnish a terrific overview of what happens when you talk “local control” of government schools and decry federal micromanaging, but can’t stop yourself from spending federal money and love ”standards and accountability.” Basically, you get a great big refuse heap of squandered money, red tape, educational stagnation, and political failure.

Having laid all that out pretty nicely, you’d think that Hess and Kelly would reach the logical conclusion: Conservatives should obey the Constitution and get Washington out of education. But they don’t. Instead they give precious little thought to the Constitution, and make policy prescriptions that fundamentally ignore that government tends to work for the people we’d have it control. You know, concentrated benefits, diffuse costs; iron triangles – basically, the big problems Hess and Kelly decry at state and local levels.

Start with their constitutional argument (such as it is):

The federal government does have a legitimate role to play in schooling — and it always has. From the Land Ordinance of 1785, which set aside land for the purpose of building and funding schools, through Dwight Eisenhower’s 1958 investment in math and science instruction after the launch of Sputnik, the federal government has recognized a compelling national interest in the quality of American education.

Wow! What a sweep of history! What a great many years this covers!

The thing is, most of those years see essentially no federal education activity, and the first year mentioned – 1785 – precedes the Constitution. Why very little activity between 1785 and 1958? Because relatively few people thought the national government had any role to play in governing education. That’s why neither the word “education” nor “school”  (or, for that matter, ”compelling national interest”) is in the Constitution, and even a commission created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that there is no constitutional federal role in education. Washington does have jurisdiction over District of Columbia schools, and a responsibility under the 14th Amendment to prohibit discrimination, but that’s it.

OK, to be fair, it could also be argued that Congress can constitutionally pass education provisions like those in the Land Ordinance. But not because Washington has power over education. No, because as you see in Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution, it has power over territories. Of course, states and districts are not territories, and the 10th Amendment reiterates what is clear from the granting of only specific, enumerated powers to Congress:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

In an effort to deal with the very clear failures of federal education policy – but without the clarity of following the Constitution – Hess and Kelly offer three things they think the Feds can and should focus on: transparency, research, and “trust-busting.” However, all three ignore the fundamental political reality that school systems tend to be controlled by their employees because the employees have the most at stake. And what are their incentives? Same as mine and yours: to get compensated as generously as possible and have no one hold them accountable for their performance. The result, of course, has been oodles of money spent without meaningful academic improvement.

Start with transparency. Lauding No Child Left Behind for having improved “citizens’ ability to gauge and compare school quality,”  Hess and Kelly argue that the Feds “should require that states collecting federal school funds measure and report detailed data on school quality and educational costs in a consistent, uniform way.” They caution, however, that Washington shouldn’t prescribe standards or curricula, but should measure “schools’ return on public investment.”

Talk about conflicted! How exactly do Hess and Kelly expect the Feds to both stop short of mandating curriculum and standards, and provide an accepted measure of specific schools’ return on investment? Even if you could thread the needle for a while, it is very hard to imagine Washington not eventually narrowing acceptable measures down to a single curriculum and test so that results could be uniform and distilled into soundbites. And what would likely happen even if the standards started off rigorous and the testing tough? The employees who would ultimately be held accountable would simply move their dumbing-down pressure from state and local levels to the federal level, where policy was now being made.  Nothing would be solved, and there would be huge added problems of a new, monolithic standard that could in no way effectively serve greatly diverse kids, as well as the quashing of competing curricular ideas.

Next we’ve got the research argument, which is predicated on the well-known contention that the incentives for private-sector investment in “basic” scientific research – which doesn’t offer immediate returns – are too weak to provide for optimal amounts. The Feds, therefore, have to step in with oodles of grant money. Hess and Kelly would like to extend that model to education research.

Education, however, is not particle physics, the kind of research we generally imagine as “basic.” The need for major equipment investment is not nearly as great for education, nor are the likely benefits of, say, studying the effects of flash cards as far distant as the industrial applications of string theory. Moreover, if we had broad school choice, with schools able to seek profit without penalty, educators would have every reason to invest in research and find better, more efficient ways to teach kids. Finally, there is good evidence that science funding is just as likely to translate into rent-seeking benefits to the scientists as scientific benefits to the public.

Oh, and the constitutional basis for education research spending? Hess and Kelly don’t even try to offer one.

Finally, we have “trust-busting.” Here even Hess and Kelly’s examples illustrate how mistaken their ideas are. While sensibly calling for a reduction in calcifying federal rules and regulations, Hess and Kelly also argue that the Feds should be able to set up “private” entities to compete with the public-school monopoly. They cite as an example the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, which provides a teacher preparation and certification process separate from those established by states. They also note that ABCTE has been “generally neglected.” Which is probably a good thing. After all, think of two other “private” federal creations: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Seems there can be big problems when Washington creates supposedly private entities.

Then there’s this: “A related role for federal lawmakers is to help lift the burden of bad past decisions and troubling policy legacies that hinder reform-minded state and local leaders.” Hess and Kelly argue that Washington should create a form of bankruptcy that lets states and districts render null and void labor contracts and other obligations that make it hard for them to do business. And what example do they use of organizations that have been crippled by “legacy” contracts? General Motors and Chrysler.

Of course, thanks to the federal government, GM and Chrysler didn’t go through normal bankruptcy, did they? No, they went through processes jury-rigged to favor politically important special interests. That lesson should be screaming at Hess and Kelly: Give Washington power over something and they won’t use it for the common good. They will use it to reward the politically powerful, the very state and local problem Hess and Kelly are trying to solve!

The simple reality is that the federal government is no less subject to special-interest control – the ultimate result of the basic political problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs – than state and local governments. Except, that is, that Washington is even more distant from the people than state and local governments, and if people don’t like their state or local schools they can at least move.

There is, really, only one solution to the basic government problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, and we do no one any favors by denying it: We need to end government control of education.  We need a free market, in which educators are free to teach as they see fit and are held accountable by having to earn the business of paying customers.

The federal role in getting to this, thankfully, is simpler than what must be done at state levels, where constitutional authority over education actually exists. All that Washington has to do is obey the Constitution and get out of education. And yes, Rick and Andrew, that is what the Constitution requires.

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