Tag: no child left behind

From Avoiding the National Curriculum Debate, to Smothering It, Just When We Need It Most

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush cares about education. He made major education reforms in the Sunshine State, including many centered on private school choice. He has established the Foundation for Excellence in Education, and dedicates much of his time to education reform. Unfortunately, when it comes to national curriculum standards, it seems his genuine caring has led him to avoid—and now attempt to quash—critical debate on both the dubious merits of national standards, and the huge threats to federalism posed by Washington driving the standards train.

As I’ve complained on numerous occasions, it’s clear that supporters of national standards have employed a stealth strategy to get their way: back-room drafting of standards, content-free Language Arts, and, especially, employing the maddening mantra that national standardization is “state-led and voluntary.” Sadly, you can now add quashing debate to that, even among conservatives and libertarians with longstanding and crucial federalism and efficacy concerns. And according to Education Week, it appears that Jeb Bush—whose foundation just a couple of years ago invited me to participate in a panel discussion on national standards—is taking point on the smothering strategy:

In this space, we’ve been telling you about a few efforts in state legislatures to complicate adoption or implementation of common standards … A move that had the potential to involve many states unfolded last week in New Orleans, but was stopped in its tracks. And none other than former Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush, revered by many conservatives, was involved in stopping it.

The Education Week report links to a letter that Mr. Bush sent to a subcommittee of the American Legislative Exchange Council that was slated to simply take up discussion of model legislation opposing national standards. Mr. Bush urged members to table the proposal. In other words, he urged them to not even talk about it, because apparently even considering that the Common Core might have dangerous downsides should be avoided, even among people who believe in individualism and liberty.

Unfortunately, quashing debate arguably wasn’t the worst aspect of Mr. Bush’s letter. No, that was the fundamentally flawed pretenses he offered for why Common Core should be embraced without debate. 

For starters, the letter assumes that Common Core represents “rigorous academic standards,” an assumption challenged by several curriculum experts. Underlying that are the illogical  assumptions that there can be a monolithic standard that is best for all children no matter how un-monolithic children are, and that the creators of the Common Core know what the “best” standards are. Add to these things that there is no meaningful empirical support for the notion that national standards lead to better outcomes, and from a purely pragmatic standpoint not only should there be strong, public debate over national standards, there must be.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of Bush’s letter, though, is that he repeats the ”state-led and voluntary” falsehood, and does so just as the Obama administration is preparing to force states to adopt national standards if they want relief from the disastrous No Child Left Behind Act. Writes Bush:

There is concern that this initiative will result in Washington dictating what standards, assessments and curriculum states may use. But these voluntarily adopted standards define what students need to know without defining how teachers should teach or students should learn.

Adoption of the Common Core is not ”voluntary,” any more than is handing over your wallet to a mugger. The federal government takes tax dollars from taxpayers whether they like it or not, and tells states that if they want to get any of it back they must “voluntarily” adopt federal rules. It’s what the $4 billion Race to the Top did for national standards. It’s what U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he, for all intents and purposes, will do with NCLB waivers. And it is how failed, bankrupting  federal education policy has been imposed for decades.  And lest we forget, Washington is spending $350 million on national tests to go with the Common Core, which the Obama administration wants to make the accountability backbone of a reauthorized NCLB.

So no, this is not voluntary. Nor is it state-led: state legislatures represent their people, but the groups that ran the Common Core State Standards Initiative were unelected professional associations—the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers.

I have no doubt that Jeb Bush has the best interests of children at heart. But even the best of intentions don’t countenance avoiding or snuffing out open debate over public policy, especially a policy as riddled with holes as national curriculum standards. Add to that our standing on the verge of unprecedented, unconstitutional federal control of our schools, and this debate must be had now, and it must be had so that all may hear it.  

 

Demonization vs. the Constitution

Yesterday, Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, introduced the first new legislation aimed at breaking down the prescriptiveness of the No Child Left Behind Act. It’s a small step in the right direction, but there are two serious problems with it:

  1. It doesn’t come nearly close enough to the reform we need.
  2. Democratic reaction to it illustrates why it is so hard for politicians to obey the Constitution.

First the insufficiency of the bill. The State and Local Funding Flexibility Act would, essentially, allow states and districts to take federal funding that comes through numerous streams and apply it to different streams. For instance, if a state wanted to take dollars slated for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program and apply them to Teacher Quality Grants, it could do so without seeking Washington’s permission.

That’s good as far as it goes; it makes sense, at least in theory, to let state and local authorities manage money according to their superior understanding of the needs of their communities.  But that’s in theory.

The first serious problem is that, ultimately, Washington would still be dictating outcomes to states and districts. As the summary for Kline’s bill states:

The State and Local Funding Flexibility Act will maintain monitoring, reporting, and accountability requirements for states and school districts under existing ESEA programs.

That suggests, at least as far as this bill goes (Kline has promised more legislation to come), that states will still have to meet all of NCLB’s rigid standards, testing, and “adequate yearly progress” requirements.   

The next big failure of the bill is that it trusts state and local bureaucrats to do what’s best for kids and handle taxpayer funds efficiently. As many people have pointed out, that’s about as likely to happen as your winning the Powerball.  

Finally, the bill fails because it keeps the same basic, unconstitutional model we’ve had for decades: federal funding of education — and associated rules — despite Washington having no constitutional authority to do so. That’s why the LEARN Act, sponsored by Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ), is superior to both what Kline has proposed and the A-PLUS Act that continues to make the rounds. LEARN would simply allow states to declare that they will not be dictated to by Washington, and let their taxpaying citizens, not education bureaucrats, reap the rewards by getting back the “education” dollars Washington took from them.

Unfortunately, a revolting tactic commonly employed by Democrats — but little different in odor quotient from, say, GOP attacks on war critics as unpatriotic — threatens to chill any effort to impose rationality on education policy. It’s the all-too-standard implication that if you’re for cutting federal education spending or even just making it more efficient, you’re at best indifferent to civil rights and, at worst perhaps, secretly a pre-Brown v. Board segregationist. As Education Week reports:

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House education committee, said the measure is “an offensive, direct attack on civil rights” that is sure to weaken efforts to ensure that disadvantaged and minority kids get access to educational opportunities.

“This back-door attempt at fulfilling campaign promises to dismantle the federal role in education will turn back the clock on civil rights and especially harm low-income and minority students,” Miller said.

This sort of rhetoric is designed to do but one thing: defeat reform efforts by all-but-directly accusing supporters of racism, or at least inhuman callousness. But notice what gets no mention: the Constitution, the thing that gives the federal government its only powers and includes no authority over education. Well, almost no authority: under the 14th Amendment Washington does have a responsibility to ensure that states and local districts do not discriminate in their provision of education, but the amendment in no way authorizes federal spending on education.  

And let’s not pretend that current federal intervention is doing any good. National Assessment of Educational progress math scores for African-American 17-year-olds — the schools’ “final products” — did rise markedly from 1973 to 1990, which could very well be at least partially a product of proper federal intervention: ending de jure segregation. But from 1990 to 2008, which includes the age of federal “accountability,” we’ve seen at-best stagnation, with the 1990 average score at 289 (out of 500) and the 2008 score at 287. Reading is the same story: healthy increases until 1988 (but fastest in Reagan’s anti-fed-ed 1980s) and stagnation after that. Indeed, the average score for African-American 17-year-olds dropped from 274 to 266 between 1988 and 2008. Meanwhile, real federal K-12 spending more than doubled, rising from $32.6 billion in 1988 to $73.2 billion in 2008.

There is, frankly, no good argument for keeping the federal government in education. But we can’t even have a reasoned debate about that as long as thinly veiled assertions of racism and callousness are the the standard response to any downsizing proposal.

Standards Garbage In, Standards Garbage Out

Over at Jay Greene’s blog, Sandra Stotsky riffs off an Education Week report about educators around the country not seeing the difference between their old state standards and new, “Common Core” standards. Stotsky offers a theory for why this is: Common Core – as far as anyone can tell because the standards-drafting process was so opaque – was put together largely by the same people responsible for the bad old state standards. As a result, maybe they really aren’t all that different.

The general ignorance about the standards brings up an important point. As Mike Petrilli at the Fordham Institute has pointed out, yes, the $4.35-billion federal Race to the Top pushed a lot of states to adopt the Common Core standards, but that doesn’t explain states adopting the standards after RTTT had concluded. It’s a reasonable point. So what else is at play?

Likely one part of the explanation is that many state education officials really don’t know much about either the Common Core or their state’s standards, so they’ve seen no big problem with switching over. This general ignorance has likely been exacerbated by Common Core advocates’ strategy of keeping the whole national-standardizing process out of the public eye, whether it’s been secretive drafting of the standards, or supporters’ constant mantra of “don’t worry, it’s all voluntary” while petitioning for federal adoption “incentives.” And let’s face it: Just going with the flow and adopting national standards furnishes one less thing state officials have to take responsbility for. If the standards turn out to be a disaster – or simply gutted by special interests in Washington – all that state officials have to say is ”sorry, the whole nation was adopting them. Heck, the feds were practically forcing us to adopt them. It’s not our fault.” Add to all this that No Child Left Behind likely had much of the public thinking we already had national standards, and it’s little wonder that the Common Core was able to worm its way into so many states. 

Whether it’s been adoption in response to bribery, passing the buck, or just keeping everything under the radar, the national-standards drive has been a troubling affair.  But there is still hope: Washington hasn’t cemented national standards and testing by attaching them to the big federal dollars flowing through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, aka, No Child Left Behind. But efforts to revise the law are underway, and if the final version contains any connection between national standards and eligibility for federal taxpayer dough, then there will be no escape.

South Dakota: Second State to Ignore NCLB Requirements

South Dakota joined Idaho this week in declaring that it will not raise its student proficiency targets next year as required by the NCLB. Under the law, states have been required to bring increasing percentages of their students up to the “proficient” level on their own tests. By 2014, NCLB demands that all students be deemed proficient by their respective state departments of education.

The belief driving NCLB was that, if we we raise government standards for what students are supposed to know and be able to do, they will learn more. They haven’t, according to the best, nationally representative indicator of academic outcomes: the NAEP Long Term Trends tests. By the end of high school, overall student achievement is no better today than it was 40 years ago. In science, it’s slightly worse.

The reason NCLB failed is that its core belief was and is wrong: external, government-mandated standards are not the driving force of progress. It is the freedom and incentives of competitive marketplaces that drive up performance and productivity. I’ve already made this case in the context of the national education standards movement, and the same arguments and evidence apply to NCLB.

The testing component of NCLB was never more than a thermometer—and a broken, unreliable thermometer at that; allowing states to play games with test difficulty and the definition of “proficiency” in order to massage their results.

Thermometers don’t cure people. They are at best a diagnostic tool.

If we want to see the same kind of progress, productivity growth, and innovation in education that we’ve come to expect in every other field, we have one choice and one choice only: adopt the same freedoms and incentives in education that have driven progress in other fields. Either we allow education to benefit from the free enterprise system or we should get used to disappointment.

Why Fed Ed Fails, and Proposals to Stop the Madness

On Monday, we took the word right to Capitol Hill: The federal government has been an abject education failure, and the only acceptable solution to the problem is for Uncle Sam to leave our kids alone.  

At the briefing in which the word was issued, Heritage’s Lindsey Burke and I also examined congressional proposals that could move us closer to the ultimate solution — especially the LEARN and A-PLUS acts — and explained why Washington, even if its interference were authorized by the Constitution, will never make education better by staying involved.

Unfortunately, lots of people couldn’t make the briefing. That’s why we are so happy to be able to present the briefing right here, to view in the comfort of your own computer chair.

Enjoy!

Washington Post Grows Nostalgic for Big-Government Bush

E.  J. Dionne Jr. has suddenly discovered the big-government George W. Bush, 12 years late, and he’s feeling nostalgic:

Perhaps I should thank the current crop of Republican presidential candidates for providing me with an experience I never, ever expected: During this week’s debate in New Hampshire, I had a moment of nostalgia for George W. Bush….

Unlike this crowd of Republicans, Bush acknowledged that the federal government can ease injustices and get useful things done.

Say what you will about his No Child Left Behind education-reform program. It accepted, correctly, that the federal government has to play an important part in reforming our public schools and held them accountable to a set of standards….

And while there are many problems with the way Bush chose to provide prescription drugs under Medicare, he was quite right to believe it had to be done….

Oh, yes, and I really do miss some of Bush’s early rhetoric. I cannot imagine a Republican today giving Bush’s 1999 speech in Indianapolis titled — shades of Barack Obama? — “The Duty of Hope.”

Bush criticized the view “that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved” as a “destructive mind-set.” He scorned this as an approach having “no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than ‘Leave us alone.’ ”

Stick with us, E. J. We could have told you this in 2007, when Michael Tanner published Leviathan on the Right; or in 2003, when I complained in the Washington Post about Bush’s spending, education program, and entitlement expansion;  or in, ahem, 1999, when Ed Crane wrote in the New York Times:

Bill Clinton’s impact on the American polity was never more evident than in the major address that the Republican Presidential aspirant George W. Bush gave in Indianapolis last week. The speech was, well, Clintonesque [in its] assumption that virtually any problem confronting the American people is an excuse for action by the Federal Government.

E. J. likes that view better than we do, but at least readers of the Washington Post will now realize that Obama’s out-of-control spending, nationalizations, and health care interventions are an extension, not a reversal, of Bush’s policies.

Sorry About Your Burning Village, But You Released the Dragon

There’s a lot of consternation over Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s threat that if Congress doesn’t quickly create and pass a new No Child Left Behind Act he will do it himself, issuing waivers galore for states that adopt as-yet unspecified, administration-dictated reforms. As Andy Rotherham writes in Time, everyone from AEI’s Rick Hess, to angry-teachers’ hero Diane Ravitch, seems to be outraged over the notion that the executive branch would simply bypass Congress because it thinks the legislators are moving too slowly.

What did they expect when they ignored the Constitution to begin with, forgetting that it gives Washington just a few, enumerated powers, and that meddling in education (save prohibiting discrimination and controlling the District of Columbia) is not among them? When they pushed for, or acquiesced to, Washington doing all sorts of things that it has no constitutional authority to do? When they essentially accepted that the Federal Government has unlimited powers? Did they expect federal politicians to suddenly remember they are supposed to be constrained only when they want to do things the educationists don’t like?

Unfortunately, most people in education policy pick and choose when they’ll invoke the Constitution based on whether or not they like what the Feds are doing or are proposing to do. In contrast, if in their presence you consistently state that education policymaking is not among Washington’s few and defined powers, and that the Feds must get out of education, they typically either ignore you; dismiss you with a rhetorical pat and smile like you are a cute, idealistic child; or condemn you as someone who hates children, the poor, teachers, enlightenment, the nation’s economic future, progress, or some combination thereof.

Well here’s the reality: Far too many educationists have helped let the dragon out of its cage. They have only themselves to blame when it burns down their village.