Tag: nclb

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.

Neither Standards Nor Shame Can Do the Job

Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews has done it again: lifted my hopes up just to drop them right back down.

In November, you might recall, Mathews called for the elimination of the office of U.S. Secretary of Education. There just isn’t evidence that the Ed Sec has done much good, he wrote.

My reaction to that, of course: “Right on!”

Only sentences later, however, Mathews went on to declare that we should keep the U.S. Department of Education.


Today, Mathews is calling for the eradication of something else that has done little demonstrable good – and has likely been a big loss – for American education: the No Child Left Behind Act. Mathews thinks that the law has run its course, and laments that under NCLB state tests – which are crucial to  standards-and-accountability-based reforms – “started soft and have gotten softer.”

The reason for this ever-squishier trend, of course, is that under NCLB states and schools are judged by test results, leading state politicians and educrats to do all they can to make good results as easy to get as possible. And no, that has not meant educating kids better – it’s meant making the tests easier to pass.

Unfortunately, despite again seeing its major failures, Mathews still can’t let go of federal education involvement. After calling for NCLB’s end, he declares that we instead need a national, federal test to judge how all states and schools are doing.

To his credit, Mathews does not propose that the feds write in-depth standards in multiple subjects, and he explicitly states that Washington should not be in the business of punishing or rewarding schools for test performance.

“Let’s let the states decide what do to with struggling schools,” he writes.

What’s especially important about this is that when there’s no money attached to test performance there’s little reason for teachers unions, administrators associations, and myriad other education interests to expend political capital gaming the tests, a major problem under NCLB.

But here’s the thing: While Mathews’ approach would do less harm than NCLB, it wouldn’t do much good. Mathews suggests that just having the feds “shame” states with bad national scores would force improvement, but we’ve seen public schools repeatedly shrug off massive ignominy since at least the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk. As long as they keep getting their money, they couldn’t care much less.

So neither tough standards nor shaming have led to much improvement. Why?

As I’ve laid out before, it’s a simple matter of incentives.

With punitive accountability, the special interests that would be held to high standards have strong motivation – and usually the power – to demand dumbed-down tests, lowered minimum scores, or many other accountability dodges.  The result: Little or no improvement.

What if there are no serious ramifications?

Then the system gets its money no matter what and again there is little or no improvement.

It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

So what are reformers to do? One thing: Take government – which will almost always be dominated by the people it employs – out of the accountability equation completely. Give parents control of education funds and make educators earn their pay by having to attract and satisfy customers.

Unfortunately, that still seems to be too great a leap for Jay Mathews. But one of these days, I’m certain, he’ll go all the way!

Way To Go (Almost All the Way), Jay!

This morning Washington Post education columnist – and terrific Cato forum panelist – Jay Mathews called for abolition of the office of the U.S. Secretary of Education! Why? Because it has proven itself worthless, that’s why:

The president, I suspect, thought that Duncan, the former chief of the Chicago public schools, could use all he had learned there to raise achievement for students across the country.

It sounds great, but it was the same thought that led previous presidents to appoint those previous fine education secretaries to their posts. How much good did that do? Test scores for elementary and middle school students have come up a bit in the last couple of decades, but not enough to get excited about. High school scores are still flat. If national education policy had made a big jump forward, I would say we should continue to fill this job, but that hasn’t happened either. I think the No Child Left Behind law, supported by both parties, was an improvement over previous federal policies, but it was only copying what several states had already done to make schools accountable and identify schools that needed extra help.

Other than the “fine” secretaries part and the (sorta) nice words for NCLB, that sounds like something we at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom might have written. Bottom line: Washington doesn’t add any value to education, and at best just picks up on things states are already doing.

Unfortunately, after dropping the “ed sec must go” bombshell and furnishing ironclad evidence why the position is worthless, Mathews retreats from the obvious, ultimate implication of his argument: We should abolish the department the secretary leads!

The evidence screams this and, from a technical standpoint, you can’t keep a cabinet-level department and not have a secretary to head it. But in what smells a lot like a cop out, Mathews asserts that the department should stay (though in a smaller form). After all, someone has to be in charge of doling out all of the taxpayer cash that isn’t doing a damn bit of good:

Keep in mind I am NOT saying we should abolish the education department. That old Reagan campaign platform died a natural death long ago. We need the department to intelligently distribute federal money to the most promising schools in our cities and states. Cut back the number of people rumbling around that big building on Maryland Avenue—many of them are going crazy from boredom anyway—and put it under the control of a savvy civil service administrator who knows how to keep the checks and the useful data rolling out.

Too bad Mathews wasn’t willing to go all the way on this. But just for proposing that we put the position of U.S. Secretary of Education out to pasture, he deserves some hearty applause.

NAEP Math Scores, NCLB, and the Federal Government

I’m surprised anyone was surprised by the recent flat-lining of scores on the NAEP 4th grade math test. The rate of improvement in NAEP scores has been declining since No Child Left Behind was passed, and the recent results are consistent with that trend.

But what really amazes me is that so many people think the solution is just to tweak NCLB! The unstated assumption here is that federal policy is a key determinant of educational achievement. That’s rubbish.

We’ve spent $1.8 trillion on hundreds of different federal education programs since 1965, and guess what: at the end of high school, test scores are flat in both reading and math since 1970, and have actually declined slightly in science. (Charted for your viewing pleasure here).

If we’ve proved anything in the past 40 years, it is that federal involvement in education is a staggering waste of money.

Meanwhile, education economists have spent the last several decades finding out what actually does work in education. They’ve compared different kinds of school systems and it turns out that parent-driven, competitive education markets consistently outperform state monopoly school systems like ours. I tabulated the results in a recent peer-reviewed paper and they favor education markets over monopolies by a margin of 15 to 1.

So policymakers who actually care about improving educational outcomes should be spending their time and resources enacting laws that will bring free and competitive education markets within reach of all families. And they should be ignoring the education technocrats who – like Soviet central planners – just want to keep spending other people’s money tweaking their fruitless five year plans.

Chart of the Day — Federal Ed Spending

The debate over No Child Left Behind re-authorization is upon us.

Except it isn’t.

In his recent speech kicking off the discussion, education secretary Arne Duncan asked not whether the central federal education law should be reauthorized, he merely asked how.

Let’s step back a bit, and examine why we should end federal intervention in (and spending on) our nation’s schools… in one thousand words or less:

Fed Spend Ach Pct Chg (Cato -- Andrew Coulson)

While the flat trend lines for overall achievement at the end of high school mask slight upticks for minority students (black students’ scores, for instance, rose by 3-5 percent of the 500 point NAEP score scale), even those modest gains aren’t attributable to federal spending. Almost that entire gain happened between 1980 and 1988, when federal spending per pupil declined.

And, in the twenty years since, the scores of African American students have drifted downard while federal spending has risen stratospherically.

Duncan’s NCLB Reauthorization Push Shows Extreme Tunnel Vision

In a major speech to be delivered today, education secretary Arne Duncan will call for an end to “ ‘tired arguments’ about education reform” and ask for input in crafting a ”sweeping reauthorization” of the federal No Child Left Behind act. His decision not to openly debate the merits of reauthorization – to simply assume it – guarantees the tiredness and futility of the discussion.

Americans have spent $1.85 trillion on federal education programs since 1965, and yet student achievement at the end of high school has stagnated while spending per pupil has more than doubled – after adjusting for inflation. The U.S. high school graduation rate and adult literacy rates have been declining for decades. The gap in achievement between children of high school dropouts and those of college graduates hasn’t budged by more than a percent or two despite countless federal programs aimed at closing it.

The secretary himself acknowledges that after more than half a century of direct and increasing federal involvement in schools, “we are still waiting for the day when every child in America has a high quality education that prepares him or her for the future.

In light of the abject and expensive failure of federal intrusion in America’s classrooms, it is irresponsible for the Secretary of Education to assume without debate that this intrusion should continue.  Cutting all federal k-12 education programs would result in a permanent $70 billion annual tax cut. Given the stimulative benefits of such a tax cut it is also fiscally irresponsible for the Obama administration to ignore the option of ending Congress’ fruitless meddling in American schools.

Captain Louis Renault Award: Politics in Government Schools?!*

As Neal and Andrew have already covered extensively, President Obama is set to address the nation’s school children, and the Secretary of Education has sent out marching orders to government teachers and lesson plans for the kids.

The administration has now backpedaled from a classic political gaffe and cleaned up the most offensive aspects; asking kids to write about how they can help, explain why its important to listen to political leaders, etc.

But I think a couple of points deserve repeating.

From a push for vastly expanding federal involvement in preschool and early education to home visitations in the health care bills, the government remains intent on expanding its dominion (And hot on the heels of President Bush’s massive expansion of federal involvement in schools).

But this problem didn’t begin with Obama and won’t end with him. Politics in the schools is what we get when the government runs our schools.

Don’t want your kids indoctrinated by government bureaucrats, special interests, or the President?

Private school choice is the only remedy, and education tax credits are the increasingly popular and successful way to deliver it.

When will a critical mass of the people realize that it is dangerous and destructive to allow the government to control the education of our children and finally do something about it?

* Captain Louis Renault reference