Tag: nclb

A Decade of No Child Left Behind

Ten years later, it’s clear that the No Child Left Behind law is a failure. Instead of driving better academic performance of K-12 students, NCLB has cost many billions of dollars with no discernible positive impact on student achievement. Worse, the law has laid some of the groundwork necessary for the adoption of national standards, another step toward a fed-approved and standardized K-12 curriculum, an outcome many of the law’s former proponents explicitly oppose.

Neal McCluskey argues in this new video that the only reasonable (and Constitutional) course for the feds now is to simply bow out of K-12 education completely.

Reality, Meet Education Policy. Education Policy, Please, Meet Reality!

Nobody wants to be the guy – especially the Congress-guy – who says that we need to cut education spending. Nobody wants to be the target of attacks from both the well-intentioned and politically opportunistic that they hate children, only care about “the rich,” or any of the other deviousness  that long ago snuck up behind reasoned debate, threw a rope around its neck,  and pulled it backwards.

That’s been proven again today.

If you address it honestly, it’s nearly impossible to deny that federal education meddling has been not just a failure, but a failure with all sorts of bizzaro tendencies. Just look at today’s big edu-news story: Several months ago, Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned that this year 82 percent of the nation’s public schools would be identified as failing under the No Child left Behind Act.  A lot of people smelled pure politics behind the pronouncement – the administration wanted to unilaterally issue waivers from the law in exchange for states adopting POTUS-dictated policies – and today the Center on Education Policy released a report finding that only about 48 percent of schools “need improvement” under NCLB.

Wait, 48 percent? Isn’t that still really high?

It certainly seems so, but who the heck even knows? Every state sets its own standards-and-testing regime and most appear to have gamed the system wildly to stay out of trouble. So are all our schools failing? Half? And what even constitutes failing? No one knows, and few politicians appear willing to talk straight about it. (Of course, most probably have no idea what should constitute math and reading “proficiency” – the law’s goal – to begin with. Indeed, it’s an extremely subjective designation for anyone to make, though some in Washington act like they pretty much know what it is.)

Obviously, no sane individual would ever construct a system like this. But politically, all this illusion and contortion makes sense: Every politician wants to be seen as the savior of our children, but never wants the abuse that would come with creating and enforcing high standards, or being honest about progress made – or not made – under his or her watch. So we get all this sound, fury, and when you compare spending to test scores, educational nothing: 


Now, you’d think just the sheer lunacy of federal education policy making would make it clear to all that Washington should get out of education. And if that didn’t do it, the abysmal track record absolutely would. But no: Today the U.S. House of Representatives – the legislative body supposedly full of angry, tea-guzzling Republicans – produced their FY 2012 appropriations bill. And by how much did they cut the U.S. Department of Education budget? 20 percent? 2 percent? No, a microscopic 0.2 percent! A $153 million quark out of a $71.3 billion whale!

While office holders are wrongly considered our leaders by some – they are, in fact, our employees – you’d hope they’d lead a bit by ignoring short-term political consequences and cutting utterly failed programs. But that would be the triumph of hope over reality; politicians are as self-interested as anyone else, and will generally do only those things that help them keep or gain votes. So what must happen is that the public gets intimately familiar with the sick reality of federal education policy and votes based on it. And that means those of us at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom, and others who know the truth, must do a better job of getting that word out and helping education policy to finally meet reality.

Four More Things Washington Shouldn’t Do

Today AEI’s Rick Hess and Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond—two folks who don’t always see eye to eye—have a New York Times op-ed that decries federal micromanagement in education, then lays out four things they think Washington should do.

If only they’d stopped at lamenting micromanagement.

Let’s take their four should-do’s in order:

First is encouraging transparency for school performance and spending. For all its flaws, No Child Left Behind’s main contribution is that it pushed states to measure and report achievement for all students annually….To track achievement, states should be required to link their assessments to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or to adopt a similar multistate assessment). To shed light on equity and cost-effectiveness, states should be required to report school- and district-level spending…

This sounds great, but the key is in the doing, and there is precious little evidence Washington can force real transparency. NCLB is exhibit A: Yes, the law required states to break out data for all students and numerous subgroups, but the underlying information was essentially a lie, with states setting very low performance thresholds and calling it “proficiency.” And despite what many NCLB supporters will tell you, when you break down NAEP data—as I have done—there is little support for the notion that traditionally underperforming groups, or anyone else, have done better with NCLB than without it.

How about requiring common standards, both for academics and spending?

Even if you started with excellent, challenging academic standards, they would quickly be gutted at the behest of teacher unions, administrator associations, and probably even parents if many kids and schools didn’t meet them and were punished as a result. We’ve seen it many times, and there’s nothing about being federal that inoculates government against concentrated benefits and diffuse costs; the people most directly effected by a policy having the greatest political power over it. And financial data? As Adam Schaeffer has found, there are countless ways to hide the truth about district finances, and there’s little reason to believe that Washington will be either willing or able to sustainably force clarity.

One last thing: Where in the Constitution is the federal government authorized to demand “transparency”? Nowhere.

Second is ensuring that basic constitutional protections are respected.  No Child Left Behind required states to “disaggregate” assessment results to illuminate how disadvantaged or vulnerable populations…were doing.  Enforcing civil rights laws and ensuring that dollars intended for low-income students and students with disabilities are spent accordingly have been parts of the Education Department’s mandate since its creation in 1979.

Here there’s a slight connection to the Constitution: under the Fourteenth Amendment Washington has the duty to ensure that states and districts do not discriminate. But the presumption underlying what Darling-Hammond and Hess argue—that test data can reveal discrimination—is dubious. Can and should disparities in group scores really be laid exclusively at the feet of schools, districts, and states? Aren’t myriad factors involved in academic outcomes, many of which are outside the control of government?

Third is supporting basic research. While the private market can produce applied research that can be put to profitable use, it tends to underinvest in research that asks fundamental questions. When it comes to brain science, language acquisition or the impact of computer-assisted tutoring, federal financing for reliable research is essential.

We hear this one a lot, and in theory it makes some sense: people won’t risk their money on research that has no discernable payoff. The problem is few people ever contemplate the full cost of government funding “basic” research, or the unintended consequences.

The main concern is that putting money into things with no discernable payoff might yield just that—no payoff. So we hear about successes—government got us to the moon!—but rarely about how much has been lost in failed efforts. People don’t shy away from funding basic research just because they’re shortsighted. It’s also because they factor in risk.

Then there’s this: while we would like to think that all scientists are superhumanly selfless, they are not. They are as self-interested as the rest of us. Perhaps that’s why Austan Goolsbee—yes, Obama administration Austan Goolsbee—found in 1998 that much government R&D funding translated not into more breakthroughs, but higher wages for researchers.

What about the presumption that private markets wouldn’t put money into “brain science” or new tutoring techniques? Highly dubious. Education companies would have strong incentives to invest in research that could make them more efficient and effective because that would increase their profit margins.  The problem is, it is almost impossible to run for-profit schools in the United States, which can’t meaningfully compete against “free” government schools. In Chile, however, we see burgeoning evidence that profit can lead to greater scale—which is crucial for research—and better outcomes.

Of course, there’s nothing in the Constitution authorizing the feds to finance research.

Finally, there is value in voluntary, competitive federal grants that support innovation while providing political cover for school boards, union leaders and others to throw off anachronistic routines.

Again, sounds good, but as Hess and Darling-Hammond themselves admit:

The Obama administration’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition tried to do some of this, but it ended up demanding that winning states hire consultants to comply with a 19-point federal agenda, rather than truly innovate.

It’s easy to say that Washington should enable district and union leaders to ignore political concerns, but federal policy is as much government policy as state and local, and government at all levels is a creature of politics. Government and politics cannot be separated, and to expect one governmental level to be above politics while the others are below it is, to say the least, extremely optimistic. And again, there’s no constitutional authority to issue education grants.

Darling-Hammond and Hess are right that Washington has meddled far too much in education. They are on thin ice in asserting that different meddling will work much better.

Little Evidence for Either

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or Common Core? NCLB and Common Core? If you look at the evidence, the answer to both questions is “no.” There’s precious little evidence that NCLB has worked, and just as little that national standards will do any better.

Despite all the fine sounding talk about the federal government demanding “accountability” and forcing states to improve, NAEP data for long-struggling groups reveals many periods before NCLB with equal or faster score gains than under No Child. In other words, the federal government’s own measure of academic achievement provides no support for the idea that accountability – or anything else under No Child – has translated into better performance.

But hasn’t the problem been the lack of a common measure of “proficiency,” which has allowed states to dodge the hard work of getting all kids up to speed? And isn’t that precisely what the Common Core will fix?

No again. What we’ve learned from not just NCLB, but decades of failed federal education intervention, is that politicians and administrators at all levels will find ways to take federal money while avoiding meaningful consequences for poor performance. And there’s little reason to believe that the Common Core will change that.

For one thing, if the Common Core truly is controlled by states – which, given the Race to the Top, waivers, and federal funding of national tests it clearly isn’t – then states will ignore the standards whenever they’re inconvenient. And if the federal government tries to put the screws to states that underperform? All the teachers’ unions, administrators’ associations, and other groups representing those who would be held accountable will mobilize and have the system gutted. It’s the clear lesson of history.

But isn’t the Common Core so good, and having national standards so important, that we must adopt them?

Yet again, no.

There’s essentially no meaningful evidence that, other things being equal, countries with national standards perform better than those without.  And there is serious disagreement over the quality of the Common Core, including powerful critiques from well known English language arts expert Sandra Stotsky, and the only mathematician on the Common Core Validation Committee, R. James Milgram.

Common Core, No Child Left Behind – both are cut from the same, moth-devoured cloth: top-down government control. In light of decades of costly failure, it is well past time we stop entertaining such fixes and move on to something different. It’s time to focus on fundamentally changing the system so that educators have the freedom to tailor teaching to the needs of unique children, while parents are empowered to hold educators truly accountable. It is time for school choice, which, unlike NCLB and national standards, the evidence very much supports.

C/P from the National Journal’sEducation Experts” blog.

American Education, From Camelot to Obamaville

The president has relentlessly called for a more extensive—and expensive—federal role in education. Here’s just one example:

The human mind is our fundamental resource. A balanced Federal program must go well beyond incentives for investment in plant and equipment. It must include equally determined measures to invest in human beings—both in their basic education and training and in their more advanced preparation…. Without such measures, the Federal Government will not be carrying out its responsibilities for expanding the base of our economic… strength.

And if we spend all those new federal dollars on k-12 education, the president promised that “it will pay rich dividends in the years ahead.”

But here’s the strange part: in that same speech, the president made this seemingly ridiculous claim:

Our progress in education over the last generation has been substantial. We are educating a greater proportion of our youth to a higher degree of competency than any other country on earth.

It’s actually not so ridiculous when you learn that the president who said it was John F. Kennedy, in February of 1961. Back then, we really had been making educational progress.

Aside from the ill-fated National Defense Education Act of 1958, the federal government had made no attempt to improve k-12 academic achievement or attainment in the four decades before JFK… and yet, as he noted, American education did in fact improve during that period.

But within a couple of years of JFK’s assassination, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now known as the No Child Left Behind Act. And in the four plus decades since, the feds have spent roughly $2 trillion trying to improve outcomes and attainment. Over that course of years, both graduation rates and academic achievement at the end of high school have been flat or declining.

Perhaps it could be argued that JFK couldn’t have known better. There was no history showing him what an expensive failure U.S. federal education spending would turn out to be. But the same cannot be said of President Obama, or of those in Congress who continue to tell the public, and presumably themselves, that fed ed. spending is a useful “investment.”

Today, we can look back at a half-century of failed federal education programs. We can think about how much better off the U.S. economy and our children would be if we hadn’t thrown $2 trillion at a calcified school monopoly that cannot spend money efficiently.

And reflecting on that history, perhaps we’ll find the wisdom not to repeat it.


Beating Back Big (Ed.) Brother?

It certainly seems quixotic to try to reverse the federal invasion of American education—it’s “for the children,” for crying out loud!—but there are signs that the forces of constitutional and educational good might be making progress. The fact of the matter is that people seemingly across the ideological spectrum have had it with the illogical, rigid, and failed No Child Left Behind Act, and very few people want to keep that sort of thing in place.

What’s the evidence of this?

For one, both Senate Republicans and Democrats are putting out NCLB reauthorization bills that would significantly reduce the mandates the current law puts on states, including the hated and utterly unrealistic full-proficiency-by-2014 deadline. On the House side, Republicans have for months been advancing bills aimed at reducing the size and prescriptiveness of Washington’s edu-occupation. The White House, too, has been arguing that NCLB is far too bureaucratic. Finally, GOP presidential candidates are returning to what was, before the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush, an obvious Republican position: there should be no U.S. Department of Education whatsoever.

So perhaps NCLB will be remembered as the high-water mark of federal school control.

Perhaps, but we’re nowhere near the promised land yet.

First, there is the extremely troubling way the Obama administration is pushing NCLB aside: issuing states waivers from the law, but only if they implement administration-dictated measures, including ”college and career ready standards,” a euphemism for federal curriculum control. But even if they were demanding that states adopt universal private school choice, this would be extremely dangerous, and far beyond just education. The administration is for all intents and purposes unilaterally making law: no separation of powers, no Congressional approval—nothing! Essentially, the rule of law is being replaced by the rule of man, and no one should stand for that even if they think, as I do, that No Child Left Behind is an absolute dud. It reminds me of of one of my all-time favorite movie scenes.

And then there are those federal standards, the supposedly “state-led and voluntary” Common Core standards that Washington just happens to have repeatedly shoved onto states, whether through Race to the Top or waivers. They are perhaps the greatest threat to educational freedom we’ve yet seen, holding the potential to let Washington dictate what every child in America will learn, no matter how controversial, or unproven, or unfit for any kids who are not “the average.”

Fortunately, resistance to these, too, seems to be gaining traction. Perhaps the most heartening evidence is Prof. Jay Greene having been invited a few weeks ago to testify on national standards before the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. Jay terrifically summarized the myriad logical and empirical failings of national standards generally, and the Common Core specifically, and having his testimony out there is useful in and of itself. But more important is that at least some people in Congress are paying attention to this largely—and intentionally—under-the-radar conquest. Meanwhile, there is evidence that in at least some states that have adopted the Common Core people are becoming aware of it and starting to ask questions. At the very least, these happenings offer reason to hope that national standards supporters won’t keep getting away with just repeating the fluff logic of “a modern nation needs a single standard, and don’t worry, the Common Core has been rated as good by all us Common Core supporters.”

What has for a long time seemed impossible is suddenly feeling a bit more plausible: withdrawing the Feds from our kids’ classrooms. But there’s a huge amount still to do, and gigantic threats staring us in the face.

Obama’s Double-Secret Violation of the Constitution

Though few people outside of the Tea Party—especially politicians—have the guts to say it, federal education control like the No Child Left Behind Act is blatantly unconstitutional. Authority over education is not among the federal government’s enumerated powers, and laws like the NCLB—which truly is a wreck driven by what self-interested politicians thought sounded good—also go far beyond the 14th Amendment’s charge to prohibit discrimination by state and local governments. 

But not satisfied to just have Washington fully ensconced in classrooms, this morning the Obama administration officially went to double-secret violation of the Constitution, adding a brazen dumping of the separation of powers to federal education policy.

This second layer of Constitution-contempt comes in the form of the administration telling states that they can get waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act—which the NCLB allows—but requiring that they adopt administration-approved policies to do so. That second part the NCLB does not allow, meaning the president has decided to rewrite the law all by himself—including strong-arming states to adopt “college and career ready standards,” another step toward federal curriculum standards—even though the Constitution is crystal clear: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” 

In response to this, will we finally hear the Constitution loudly, constantly, and honestly invoked and defended by members of Congress, especially those in the GOP who don’t have the obstacle of having to defend “their” president? We sure as heck should, but don’t count on it: If they start really defending the Constitution now, think of all the violations they’ve happily perpetrated that someone might notice. No, better to keep up the double-secret evasion and complain on other grounds, like President Obama is being too “political.” Because no one in Congress—or anywhere else—would ever act based on political motives, such as concluding that “Constitution, shmonstitution, we can’t push to get the Feds completely out of education because people would think we are mean.” 

No, political thinking like that would never happen.