Tag: no child left behind

First to the “Top”

Congratulations Delaware and Tennessee – you’ve won the Race to the Top beauty contest! Of course, the grading was subjective and will be disputed by lots of states that haven’t won. Well, haven’t won yet – there’s a second round to this, remember.

So what do the victories for Delaware and Tennessee mean? The edu-pundits will no doubt be reading deep into the results over the coming days, trying to determine what they portend for the future of RttT, federal education policy generally, and politicians across the country.  And there are some juicy political leads worth following, including the possibility that the winning states were chosen because they have Republican congress members who could be pivotal in getting bipartisan support for the administration’s No Child Left Behind reauthorization plans.  

All of this, though, will ultimately miss by far the biggest point about RttT: The most beautiful promises and laws mean nothing unless they are implemented, and history offers little reason to believe that even the finest parts of the RttT winners’ applications will be brought to bear.

Despite over forty years of federal education interventions, and nearly two decades of state-level standards-and-accountability reforms, academic achievement has stagnated. Long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress scores in mathematics and reading for our schools’ “final products” – high-school seniors – have been almost completely flat since the early 1970s, and fourth and eighth-grade “main NAEP” reading scores released just last week demonstrate the same awful trend since the early 1990s. This despite a 123-percent increase in real, per-pupil funding since 1970.  

Quite simply, no degree of legislative tinkering within the system has produced lasting improvements because those who would be held to high standards – teachers, administrators, and bureaucrats – have by far the most political clout in education, and they’ve hollowed out anything “tough” that’s been tried. The only thing that will move us powerfully forward – as extensive research on educational freedom demonstrates – is empowering parents to bypass education politics by freely choosing schools that have the autonomy needed to compete and innovate.

Unfortunately, that kind of reform wouldn’t gain a state so much as a point in the Race to the Top. And the limited choice – charter schools – that could get a state some points? According to the Center for Education Reform, Delaware only gets a B for its charter school law – a grade based generally on how free and competitive charter schools can be – while Tennessee gets an atrocious mark of D.

There’s nothing beautiful about that.

Run Away from ‘Common’ Education Standards

A couple of days ago, Fordham Institute president Chester Finn declared on NRO that conservatives should embrace new, national education standards from the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Today I respond to him on The Corner, and let’s just say it’s clear that neither conservatives, nor anybody else, should embrace national standards.

Oh, one more thing: I shouldn’t have to keep saying this to savvy Washington insiders like the folks at Fordham, but when the federal government bribes states with their own citizens’ tax money to do something, doing that thing is hardly voluntary, at least in any reasonable sense. 

For more wise thoughts on the national standards issue, check out this interview with Jay Greene, and this Sacramento Bee piece by Ben Boychuk.  Oh, and this interview with yours truly.

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.