Tag: no child left behind

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.

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.