Tag: no child left behind

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.

Is “Race to the Top” Handwriting on the Wall?

As freedom-minded folks have been celebrating major setbacks for Obama Care, campaign-speech control, and lots of other attacks on liberty, some have been sounding the alarm over the insidious “Race to the Top” contest. A couple of siren blasts I just caught are well worth taking in yourself, one by the Heartland Institute’s Robert Holland and the other by Colorado Board of Education member Peggy Littleton. In particular, the writers think they see the handwriting on the wall in the de facto requirement that states promise to adopt as-yet-unwritten “common” (read: national) standards to compete for RTTT funds.  As Littleton writes:

We already know that the federal government, or at the least consortiums of states, wants to develop assessments to assess the Common Core. The scary progression continues… National Common Core, common assessment, will inevitably lead to a national curriculum.

Is nationalizing – and thereby federalizing – the curriculum the Obama administration’s goal? RTTT sure as heck makes it seem that way, but we should have an even better idea soon: the administration wants Congress to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act this year.

And so it may be coming to pass: Perhaps, ironically, because of this week’s revolt against Washington, we might be heading for another power grab by Washington. And this time, we shouldn’t expect anything close to unanimous Republican help fending it off. 

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.

Huh?

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!

Sorry to Keep Interrupting Your Folly with the Constitution, But…

…the Constitution!

ROUNDEDpocketConst_150Andy Smarick at the Fordham Foundation continues to simultaneously cajole and sympathize with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as Duncan tries to formulate some sort of discernible parameters for what the federal government should and  should not do in education. Clearly, Smarick feels Duncan’s pain:

I have sympathy … because figuring out the right role for the federal government in education policy is no easy task. But I’ve been pointed and nagging because the Department needs to come up with a coherent position if it’s to sell an NCLB reauthorization plan.

Given his apparently long-standing suffering over this issue, it turns out that today is Smarick’s lucky day — I have an elixir that defines the only unshifting and unmuddled parameters of federal education policy possible: outside of Washington, DC, and federal properties like military installations, the federal government has no authority whatsoever to be involved in education! Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution makes this clear, including nothing about education among the specific powers it gives to the federal government.

And if that medicine isn’t strong enough,  the 10th Amendment doubles it, reiterating that the Constitution gives the feds only specific, enumerated powers:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Unfortunately, I’ve offered this potent treatment for Smarick (and Duncan’s) painful problem before and Smarick pretty much just flushed it down the toilet.  Last time, he simply ignored the overwhelming evidence I offered that federal involvement in education has been and will continue to be a bankrupting failure; declared it unrealistic to think that the feds would get out of education; and wondered aloud whether I might also want to get rid of federal entities like NASA. In other words, he completely dodged the critical question at hand: What is the proper federal role in education?

So here Smarick remains, floundering around with Duncan to determine what they think the feds should and should not be doing in education. And guess what they’ve come up with? The federal role should be anything and everything! It should be pushing whatever programs or reforms Washington deems “successful,” or anything for kids it declares “underserved,” or that has anything to do with “national” standards.

And what’s the role of states, school districts, schools, parents, and kids? To be ready to jump whenever and in whatever direction Washington tells them to:

Pieced together, a slightly clearer picture starts to emerge. If I’m reading it right, it’s something along the lines of “The feds will embrace national standards and assessments; invest in new ideas and successful practices; and allow states and districts to control most decisions unless underserved kids are getting hurt.”

If this is a faithful rendering of the Secretary’s view, the Department has a solid foundation on which to build. But huge questions remain: How far can the feds go with regard to disadvantaged students? How do you remain loose on means and still hold states accountable for billions of dollars? How does IDEA shift away from compliance? How does ED transition from a regulatory body to the NIH of education?

As I wrote above, developing a comprehensive, coherent philosophy on these matters is terribly hard, and we’re watching ED go through the sausage-making phase. I give them credit.

Let’s hope, when all’s said and done, that we look back on this progress like the Beatles Anthology—which shows how impeccable final products typically evolve from messy drafts — and not like the making of Chinese Democracy — a long, agonizing wait that ultimately leaves you wishing for more.

Now, I have to ask: Why would you ever, ever want to subject the nation and its children to a federal government that has potentially unlimited power in education and could very possibly produce calamitous results for all? And why would you want to force schools and children to sit atop a constantly quaking foundation, one subjected to perpetual and potentially disastrous lurching produced by the ever-changing political desires and needs of secretaries of education, presidential administrations, congresses, and self-serving politicians of all stripes?

Quite simply, there is no acceptable answer to that other than “I absolutely wouldn’t.” And that answer means that the only right answer to the question of what the federal government should do in education is “nothing.”

At some point, if we’re ever going to make any progress, people need to stop ignoring all the evidence and start dealing with reality.

Weekend Links

  • The Democrats’ ingenious plan to disguise the true cost of their health care bills.

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.

Another Education Road Sign Screaming “Stop!”

This morning the National Center for Education Statistics released a new report, Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scores: 2005-2007.  What the results make clear (for about the billionth time) is that government control of education has put us on a road straight to failure. Still, many of those who insist on living in denial about constant government failure in education will yet again refuse to acknowledge reality, and will actually point to this report as a reason to go down many more miles of bad road.

According to the report, almost no state has set its “proficiency” levels on par with those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the so-called “Nation’s Report Card.” (Recall that under No Child Left Behind all children are supposed to be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014.) Most, in fact, have set “proficiency” at or below NAEP’s “basic” level. Moreover, while some states that changed their standards between 2005 and 2007 appeared to make them a bit tougher, most did the opposite. Indeed, in eighth grade all seven states that changed their reading assessments lowered their expectations, as did nine of the twelve states that changed their math assessments.

Many education wonks will almost certainly argue that these results demonstrate clearly why we need national curricular standards, such as those being drafted by the Common Core State Standards Initiative. If there were a national definition of “proficiency,” they’ll argue, states couldn’t call donkeys stallions. But not only does the existence of this new report refute their most basic assumption – obviously, we already have a national metric – the report once again screams what we already know:  Politicians and bureaucrats will always do what’s in their best interest – keep standards low and easy to meet – and will do so as long as politics, not parental choice, is how educators are supposed to be held accountable. National standards would only make this root problem worse, centralizing poisonous political control and taking influence even further from the people the schools are supposed to serve. 

Rather than continuing to drive headlong toward national standards – the ultimate destination of the pothole ridden, deadly, government schooling road – we need to exit right now. We need to take education power away from government and give it to parents. Only if we do that will we end hopeless political control of schooling and get on a highway that actually takes us toward excellent education.