Tag: nclb

NCLB a Barrier, Not an Aid

Sandy Kress, former Bush administration official and architect of NCLB, took issue last Friday with my post criticizing the law. Today, education writer Rishawn Biddle publishes and expands on Kress’ critique. Sandy’s objection was that Idaho, one of the states planning to start ignoring the law, isn’t performing well academically and so “is hardly a poster child for arguing against a federal role.”

As it happens, I wasn’t using Idaho—or any “poster child”—to make the case against against NCLB. I was using the experiences of real children. More specifically, I was using the performance of nationally representative samples of students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress Long Term Trends tests. The LTTs for students near the end of high school are the best gauge we have of the performance of the nation’s public schools over time. The stagnation and decline in those results across subjects are not the only evidence or argument against NCLB, but they are compelling.

Rishawn offers little in the way of argument or evidence to support his own comments, but one of them is nevertheless worth responding to because it represents a common view that is not only wrong but exactly backwards: the notion that NCLB helps to advance the kind of market reforms that actually work. Au contraire.

The state tests NCLB focuses on are all but worthless for comparing states to one another or for determining trends over time, so the law tells us considerably less than we could already discover from the NAEP.  NCLB has, however, been an epic, expensive distraction, pulling the efforts of countless activists, policymakers and educators away from the market reforms that work and consuming their time arguing about the details of a policy that never had a sound research base to support it and still does not. Adding insult to injury, NCLB exacerbated the unconstitutional overreach of its earlier form, the ESEA. If NCLB worked better and more efficiently than alternative policies, and had no deleterious side effects, I would be all for amending the Constitution to allow it. It doesn’t.

So no, NCLB is not an aid to meaningful reform. It is a barrier. The sooner we get over it, the better.

Punish Me? I Didn’t Do Anything—and Johnny’s Guilty, Too!

It’s hard to pin down what’s more frustrating about Michael Petrilli’s response to my recent NRO op-ed on national standards: the rhetorical obfuscation about what Fordham and other national-standardizers really want, or the grade-school effort to escape discipline by saying that, hey, some kids are even worse!

Let’s start with the source of aggravation that by now must seem very old to regular Cato@Liberty readers, but that  has to be constantly revisited because national standardizers are so darned disciplined about their message: The national-standards drive is absolutely not “state led and voluntary,” and by all indications this is totally intentional. Federal arm-twisting hasn’t just been the result of ”unforced errors,” as Petrilli suggests, but is part of a conscious strategy.

There was, of course, Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring Students Receive a World-class Education, the 2008 joint publication of Achieve, Inc., the National Governors Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers that called for Washington to implement “tiered incentives” to push states to adopt “common core” standards. Once those organizations formed the Common Core State Standards Initiative they reissued that appeal while simultaneously — and laughably — stating that “the federal government has had no role in the development of the common core state standards and will not have a role in their implementation [italics added].”

Soon after formation of the CCSSI, the Obama administration created the “Race to the Top,” a $4.35-billion program that in accordance with the CCSSI’s request — as opposed to its hollow no-Feds “promise” — went ahead and required states to adopt national standards to be fully competitive for taxpayer dough.

The carnival of convenient contradiction has continued, and Fordham — despite Petrilli’s assertion that “nobody is proposing” that “federal funding” be linked “to state adoption of the common core standards and tests” — has been running it. Indeed, just like President Obama’s “blueprint” for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — better known as No Child Left Behind — Fordham’s ESEA “Briefing Book” proposes (see page 11) that states either adopt the Common Core or have some other federally sanctioned body certify a state’s standards as just as good in order to get federal money. So there would be an ”option” for states, but it would be six of one, half-dozen of the other, and the Feds would definitely link taxpayer dough to adoption of Common Core standards and tests.

Frankly, there’s probably no one who knows about these proposals who doesn’t think that the options exist exclusively to let national-standards proponents say the Feds wouldn’t technically “require” adoption of the Common Core. But even if the options were meaningful alternatives, does anyone think they wouldn’t be eliminated in subsequent legislation?

Of course, the problem is that most people don’t know what has actually been proposed — who outside of education-wonk circles has time to follow all of this? — which is what national-standards advocates are almost certainly counting on.

But suppose Fordham and company really don’t want federal compulsion? They could put concerns to rest by doing just one thing: loudly and publicly condemning all federal funding, incentivizing, or any other federal involvement whatsoever in national standards. Indeed, I proposed this a few months ago. And just a couple of weeks ago, Petrilli and Fordham President Chester Finn rejected that call, saying that they ”have no particular concern with the federal government … helping to pay” for the creation of curricular guides and other material and activities to go with national standards.

So, Fordham, you are proposing that federal funding be linked to adoption of common standards and tests, and denying it is becoming almost comical. At least, comical to people who are familiar with all of this. But as long as the public doesn’t know, the deception ends up being anything but funny.

Maybe, though, Fordham is getting nervous, at least over the possibility that engaged conservatives are on to them. Why do I think that? Because in addition to belching out the standard rhetorical smoke screen, Petrilli is now employing the’ “look over there — that guy’s really bad” gambit to get the heat off. Indeed, after ticking off some odious NCLB reauthorization proposals from other groups, Petrilli concludes his piece with the following appeal to lay off Fordham and go after people all conservatives can dislike:

We might never see eye to eye with all conservatives about national standards and tests. But we should be able to agree about reining in Washington’s involvement in other aspects of education. How about we drop the infighting and spend some of our energy working together on that?

Nice try, but sorry. While I can’t speak for conservatives, those of us at Cato who handle education have certainly addressed all sorts of problems with federal intervention in our schools. But right now in education there is no greater threat to the Constitution, nor our children’s learning, than the unprecedented, deception-drenched drive to empower the federal government to dictate curricular terms to every public school — and every public-school child — in America. And the harder you try to hide the truth, the more clear that becomes.

All You Have to Do Is Let Go of the Monopoly

I don’t have to prove my bona fides when it comes to opposing top-down, standards-based education reforms. I’ve been highly critical of the No Child Left Behind Act; very aggressive in attacking the reckless drive for national curriculum standards; and have repeatedly noted the importance of educator autonomy. So when you read the following, keep in mind that it is definitely not coming from a command-and-control aficionado: The weakest position in today’s big education war is the one opposed to both standards-based reforms and school choice. It’s the one enunciated yesterday by the Washington Post’ s Valerie Strauss, but which is most firmly staked out by historian Diane Ravitch.  It’s the position that essentially boils down to “don’t touch my local, teacher-dominated monopoly!”

Why is this so weak? Because it gives parents and taxpayers – the people who pay for public education and whom the system is supposed to serve – the fewest avenues to get what they want out of the schools.

Outraged over your neighborhood school because it is dangerous, the staff apathetic, and the building crumbling? Too bad – you get what you’re given and can’t even appeal to a higher level of government. And as we’ve seen in far too many places where the residents aren’t rich enough to exercise choice by buying expensive homes in better districts – the District of Columbia, Compton, Detroit, etc. – Ravitch’s utopian vision of school districts as places where “people congregate and mobilize to solve local problems, where individuals learn to speak up and debate and engage in democratic give-and-take with their neighbors” is just so much gauzy rhapsodizing. Reality is much harsher.

Of course, there are gigantic, fatal flaws with the standards-and-accountability movement, and people like Ravitch and Strauss have very compelling reasons for concern.

The standards movement, for one thing, is completely reliant on standardized testing. Indeed, it is heading for a single, national test, despite well-established evidence that tests are highly constrained in what they can tell us about learning.

In addition, as Ravitch and others regularly lament, the standards movement seems to be dominated by present and former business leaders who have tended to treat education as just another uniform-widget production problem. But children are not uniform; they are individual human beings with widely varied interests, rates of maturity, educational starting points, and life goals. But that never seems to enter into the standards equation, rendering it wrong from the start. Add to this that standards-based reformers tend to treat the education system as a single entity to be engineered, rather than an industry in which schools are the firms and competition is essential for sustained innovation and improvement, and standards-based reforms are as hopeless as teacher-dominated mini monopolies.

Unfortunately, top-down standardizers seem unlikely to join the fold of the one reform that includes both necessary educator autonomy and powerful accountability to parents: educational freedom. Yes, they often like school choice as long as government dictates what chosen schools teach, but they don’t embrace real freedom. Perhaps, though, the Ravitches and Strausses of the world can be brought on board. They won’t be able to keep the local monopolies they cherish, but they’ll be able to get most of what they want: much less stultifying uniformity; considerably more freedom for teachers; and the flourishing of communities, though communities based on shared norms and values, not mere physical proximity.

The flimsiest position in our great education debate is the one held by opponents of both top-down accountability and educational freedom. But if they’ll  remove the rose-tinted glasses through which they see local public schooling, there is an option that should appeal to them, one that injects essential parent power and competition into education while giving educators the professional autonomy they crave. It is school choice – educational freedom – and it is the reform that wins the great education debate.

Diane Ravitch Is Right on Republicans and NCLB

Writing in yesterday’s WSJ, education historian Diane Ravitch laments that Republicans have abandoned their earlier defense of federalism and limited government in education, embracing vast and expanding powers for Washington over the nation’s schools. In particular, she faults the No Child Left Behind act for demanding public school improvements that have not been forthcoming and for imposing “corrective” measures that will not correct the problem.

Though I depart from Ravitch on most education policy matters – and not just on conclusions but also methodology – she is right in both of the above observations. Over the past decade, many Republicans have championed new federal powers in education that have no basis in the U.S. Constitution, no plausible empirical justification, and no evidence of success. NCLB demands higher achievement without creating the market freedoms and incentives that would actually allow it – asking, in other words, for the impossible.

With the current resurgence of public interest in limited government, Republicans have an excellent opportunity to rekindle their commitment to the limited federal role in education laid out by the U.S. Constitution. Phasing out NCLB would be a good place to start.

A Fannie Mae for Intrastructure?

Like President Bush before him, Obama has a knack for taking the worst ideas of his opponents and making them his own.  It is truly bipartisanship in the worst of ways (think Sarbanes-Oxley, the TARP or No Child Left Behind).  The newest example is the President’s proposed “infrastructure bank.”  A bill along those lines was introduced a few years ago by then Senator Hagel, although the idea is far from new.

First, let’s get out of the way the myth that we have been “under-funding” intrastructure.  Take the largest, and usually most popular, piece:  transportation.  Over the last decade, transportation spending at all levels of government has increased over 70 percent.  One can debate if that money has been spent wisely, but there’s no doubt we’ve been spending an ever-increasing amount on infrastructure - so there goes one rationale for an infrastructure bank.

The real rationale for an infrastructure bank is to transfer the risk of default away from investors, bankers and local/state governments onto the federal taxpayer, but to do so in such a manner that the taxpayer has no idea what they are on the hook for.

If there are truly great projects out there that will pay their own way, then they should have no trouble getting private funding.

Of course, we will be told that the bank will charge an interest rate sufficient to cover losses and that the taxpayer won’t be on the hook.  Again, if it is charging an appropriate rate, then why does the bank need to be chartered (and backed) by the taxpayer?  We’ve heard this story before…with Social Security, flood insurance, FHA, Fannie/Freddie…the list goes on, that all of these programs would pay their own way and never cost the taxpayer a dime.  If there are truly outstanding infrastructure needs, then appropriate the money and pay for them.  An infrastructure bank is just another way to allow Wall Street to line its pockets while leaving the risk with the taxpayer.  If bankers aren’t willing to actually take the risks, then why exactly do we need them?

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.

You Always Lose with Top-Down Standards

Yesterday, Andrew Coulson and I wrote a bit on President Obama’s little talk with the nation’s governors about potential changes to federal education policy. The root of the President’s proposal – and we’ve probably only seen fragments of what will eventually come out – is a requirement that states adopt common “college- and career-readiness standards” to qualify for large chunks of federal money.

This certainly puts in place the “standards” part of  “standards and accountability” reform, which has dominated education for roughly the last fifteen years. But where’s the “accountability” part?

So far, nowhere. Yes, a state would have to adopt common standards – or, interestingly, somehow work with universities to certify its standards as college- and career-ready – but the administration has offered nothing by way of accountabilty for academic outcomes. Indeed, it has emphasized a move away from the “corrective” actions that No Child Left Behind imposes on laggard schools and has instead pushed getting extra resources (of course!) to those institutions.

This must be alarming to reformers who think the only way to fix education is to have government “get tough” on its schools. And the no-accountability approach certainly doesn’t make much intuitive sense. Without potential punishments or rewards for outcomes, what incentives do districts and schools have to meet standards, national or otherwise?

The answer, of course, is none. But don’t fret: Whether there are accountability measures for performance or not, in government-run schooling the outcome will be the same. Unfortunately, “the same” always means “poor.”

Why inevitably poor? Because the people employed in education – teachers, school administrators, bureaucrats – have hugely disproportionate power over education politics, and hence a tremendous ability to bend the system to their will. And what do they prefer from the system? The same thing you or I would ideally get from our jobs: as much money as possible with no accountability for what we produce. The impotence of NCLB is exhibit A of this.

With that political reality firmly in mind, the final result for any potential combination of standards and accountability becomes clear: No meaningful improvement. The handy matrix below lays it out:

So let’s give this to President Obama: His move to further federalize education authority is very troubling, but at least he doesn’t see the need for the accountability charade. Or so, anyway, it seems for the moment.