Tag: no child left behind

Federal Education Results Prove the Framers Right

Yesterday, I offered the Fordham Foundation’s Andy Smarick an answer to a burning question: What is the proper federal role in education? It was a question prompted by repeatedly mixed signals coming from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about whether Washington will be a tough guy, coddler, or something in between when it comes to dealing with states and school districts.  And what was my answer? The proper federal role is no role, because the Constitution gives the feds no authority over American education.

Not surprisingly, Smarick isn’t going for that. Unfortunately, his reasoning confirms my suspicions: Rather than offering a defense based even slightly on what the Constitution says, Smarick essentially asserts that the supreme law of the land is irrelevant because it would lead to tough reforms and, I infer, the elimination of some federal efforts he might like.

While acknowledging that mine is a “defensible argument,” Smarick writes that he disagrees with it because it “would presumably require immediately getting rid of IDEA, Title I, IES, NAEP, and much more.” He goes on to assert that I might “argue that doing so is necessary and proper because it’s the only path that squares with our founding document, but policy-wise it is certainly implausible any time soon.” Not far after that, Smarick pushes my argument aside and addresses a question to “those who believe that it’s within the federal government’s authority to do something in the realm of schools.”

OK. Let’s play on Smarick’s grounds. Let’s ignore what the Constitution says and see what, realistically, we could expect to do about federal intervention in education, as well as what we can realistically expect from continued federal involvement.

First off, I fully admit that getting Washington back within constitutional bounds will be tough. That said, I mapped out a path for doing so in the last chapter of Feds In The Classroom, a path that doesn’t, unlike what Smarick suggests, require immediate cessation of all federal education activities. Washington obviously couldn’t be pulled completely out of the schools overnight.

Perhaps more to Smarick’s point, cutting the feds back down to size has hardly been a legislatively dead issue. Indeed, as recently as 2007 two pieces of legislation that would have considerably withdrawn federal tentacles from education – the A-PLUS and LEARN acts – were introduced in Congress. They weren’t enacted, but they show that getting the feds out of education is hardly a pipe dream. And with tea parties, the summer of townhall discontent, and other recent signs of revolt against big government, it’s hardly out of the question that people will eventually demand that the feds get out of their schools.

Of course, there is the other side of the realism argument: How realistic is it to think that the federal government can be made into a force for good in education? It certainly hasn’t been one so far. Just look at the following chart plotting federal education spending against achievement, a chart that should be very familiar by now.

Education Spending

Notice anything? Of course! The federal government has spent monstrous sums on education without any corresponding improvement in outcomes!

Frankly, it’s no mystery why: Politicians, as self-interested people, care first and foremost about the next election, not long-term education outcomes. They care about what will score them immediate political points. That’s why federal politicians have thrown ever-more money at Title I without any meaningful sign it makes a difference. That’s why No Child Left Behind imposed rules that made Washington politicians look tough on bad schools while really just pushing more dough at educrats and giving states umpteen ways to avoid actual improvement. That’s why Arne Duncan vacillates between baddy and buddy at the drop of a headline. And that basic reality – as well as the reality that the people employed by the public schools will always have the greatest motivation and ability to influence government-schooling policies – is why it is delusional to expect different results from federal education interventions than what we’ve gotten for decades.

OK. But what about a law like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)? Hasn’t it helped millions of disabled kids who would otherwise have been neglected by states and local school districts?

For one thing, it is constitutional and totally appropriate under the 14th Amendment for the federal government to ensure that states don’t discriminate against disabled children in provision of education. IDEA, however, does much more than that, spending billions of federal dollars, promoting over-identification of “disabilities,” and creating a hostile, “lawyers playground” of onerous, Byzantine rules and regulations, all without any proof that the law ultimately does more good than harm. And again, this should be no surprise, because federal politicians care most about wearing how much they “care” on their reelection-seeking sleeves, no matter how negative the ultimate consequences may be.

Alright-y then. How about the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)? Isn’t it an invaluable source of national performance data?

NAEP results are used in the above chart, so obviously I have found NAEP of some value.  But does its usefulness justify ignoring the Constitution? Absolutely not. For one thing, instead of NAEP we could use extant, non-federal tests such as the SAT, ACT, PSAT, Stanford 9, Terra Nova, and many other assessments to gauge how students are doing. And as useful as NAEP may be, it sits perilously close to being as worthless as everything else that Washington has done in education. All that has kept it from being hopelessly politicized is that there is no money attached to how states and local districts do on it. And as Smarick’s boss at Fordham, Chester Finn, testified in 2000, even with that protection NAEP and other supposedly netural federal education undertakings are under constant threat of political subversion:

Unfortunately, the past decade has also shown how vulnerable these activities are to all manner of interference, manipulation, political agendas, incompetence and simple mischief. It turns out that they are nowhere near to being adequately immunized against Washington’s three great plagues:

• the pressing political agendas and evanescent policy passions of elected officials (in both executive and legislative branches)and their appointees and aides,

• the depredations and incursions of self-serving interest groups and lobbyists (of which no field has more than education), and

• plain old bureaucratic bungling and incompetence.

Based on all of this evidence, it is clear that the only realistic avenue for getting rational federal education policy is, in fact, to follow the Constitution and have no federal education policy. In other words, the very realistic Framers of the Constitution were absolutely right not to give the federal government any authority over education, and it is time, right now, for us to stop ignoring them. Doing anything else will only ensure continued, bankrupting failure.

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.

All That NAEP Tells Us Is Things Ain’t Good

Yesterday, another round of scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress – the so-called “Nation’s Report Card” – came out. They revealed flattened 4th-grade math achivement between 2007 and 2009, and a two point (out of 500) increase in 8th grade.

So what do these bits of data portend? Ask the experts:

“The trend is flat; it’s a plateau. Scores are not going anywhere, at least nowhere important,” said Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, according to the New York Times. “That means that eight years after enactment of No Child Left Behind, the problems it set out to solve are not being solved, and now we’re five years from the deadline and we’re still far, far from the goal.”

Next, former National Center for Education Statistics commissioner Mark Schneider concluded that “either the standards movement has played out, or the No Child law failed to build on its momentum. Whatever momentum we had, however, is gone.”

And then there’s Michigan State University professor William Schmidt, a leading national-standards proponent, who opined in the Baltimore Sun that “there is a hardly any change. There is hardly any difference. How could we as a nation let that happen?” His solution to the problem: National standards, of course.

So what do I think about all this? As a long-time critic of NCLB, I am glad to see people seizing on the latest results and declaring the law a failure. It helps to advance my goal of ending the greatest federal education intervention to date, and I think NCLB supporters kind of deserve these attacks on their law. They have repeatedly given NCLB credit for positive things the evidence couldn’t come close to supporting, and it’s nice to see them on the defensive after all their overreaching.

That said, just as previous NAEP results couldn’t prove that NCLB was working, the latest NAEP scores don’t prove that it is not. We simply don’t have sufficient information about the myriad other variables affecting education to do that.

Which leads me to a much bigger problem: People using ambiguous  NAEP scores to push their favorite reforms. Some “standards and accountability” proponents, for instance,  argue that achievement improvements came as a result of states implementing standards-and-testing regimes during the 1990s. And William Schmidt suggests that the latest NAEP results demonstrate a need for national standards.

Now, NAEP simply cannot be used in any reasonable way to justify the national-standards assertion. We’ve never had national standards, so we obviously can’t measure their outcomes with NAEP. We can, however, attempt to use NAEP to assess the assertion that the push for state standards and testing in the 1990s drove real improvement. We can attempt, that is, but any conclusions will be riddled with problems.

Let’s start with the NAEP exam from which yesterday’s results came, the “main” mathematics exam. After that, we’ll look at some “long-term” NAEP results.

Take a look at the chart below. It is the 4th-grade trend line for the main math NAEP, with vertical lines separating what I’ll call the pre-accountability period (1990-1996), the state-accountability period (1996-2003), and the NCLB period (2003-2009). The numbers below each period are the per-year changes in scores for the periods above them.


What do the numbers show us? At first blush, the message seems to be that scores were improving slightly faster in the pre-accountability period than the vaunted state-accountability period, and appreciably faster than under NCLB. But this breakdown may beg more questions than it answers.

At what year, for instance, should you peg the start of the state-accountability period? I chose 1996 because by then, according to a count by Hanushek and Raymond (Table 1), twelve states – a pretty large number – had some sort of accountability mechanism in place. I could, however, have chosen 1992, because by 1993 three states had such mechanisms and the accountability movement could certainly be said to have been underway. Similarly, NCLB was enacted in 2002 – is it right to start the NCLB period in 2003? Obviously I couldn’t start the period in 2002 because there is no data for that year, but why not 2005? After all, though enacted in 2002, NCLB took a few years to be fully implemented.

Let’s make an adjustment. I’m going to keep the start of the NCLB era at 2003 because that’s pretty close to the enactment year – though it could very well produce misleading results – but will move the end of the pre-accountability period, and hence the start of the state-accountability period, to 1992.

Now what should we conclude? Again, it appears that the pre-accountability period had the best results, but this time by a much bigger margin. That said, that period included only two years – hardly sufficient data to identify a trend. Also, the NCLB period fared better than previously against the state-accountability years.

Of course, the main NAEP gives us data for less than two decades. So what does the long-term NAEP show for 9-year-olds (roughly 4th graders) in math?

Here’s a long-term trend chart, which like the main NAEP charts above is broken into periods with score-change-per-year noted below. I’ve broken it into the period before the 1983 publication of the landmark A Nation at Risk report, which scared people silly about the schools; the post-ANARbut pre-state-accountability period; the state-accountability period; and the NCLB period.

What do these results show?

In contrast to the main NAEP scores, the greatest improvement on the long-term test occurred during the state accountability period, and the second greatest under NCLB. But again, this raises more questions than it answers: Why the difference between the main and long-term results? When is best to start each period? Does it make any sense to start a period with A Nation at Risk? Should the NCLB period start in 1999, well before the law was enacted, or in 2004, two years after it’s passage? And the questions go on.

Like we did with the main NAEP results, let’s once again look at a different start date, 1992, for the state-accountability period, this time on the long-term exam.


Once again we get a whole different story. Now it is the pre-accountability period, not the state accountability period, that shows the best outcomes. And so the ambiguity continues…

All of this, of course, goes to show that NAEP results cannot be used with any confidence to conclude that any particular reform that occurred within the NAEP time span worked better or worse than any other reform within that span.

That said, there is one thing that we canuse NAEP to demonstrate very powerfully: As Andrew Coulson’s chart below vividly illustrates, if moving the achievement needle as measured by NAEP is the goal of education spending, then we have really been getting robbed! Moreover, to the extent that standards-based reforms have been a major national phenomenon since the 1990s, it is impossible to conclude that they have done very much good. Indeed, if we are to conclude anything, it is that it is time to focus on reforms that are completely different from the top-down “solutions” that have given us so little, and taken so much.


Propagandist Change

The Obama administration is taking down the “No Child Left Behind” schoolhouses in front of the U.S. Department of Education.  According to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the name is just too “toxic.”  Besides, he’s got his own plan to manipulate the public’s cuteness zone. As the Washington Post reports, “photos of students, from preschool to college age, are going up on 44 ground-floor windows, forming an exhibit that can be seen from outside. There are images of young people reading, attending science class and playing basketball.”

So the propaganda is changing. The disaster that has been federal involvement in education, however, keeps rumbling along. Indeed, it seems poised to get even worse. The Obama folks have been mum about what, exactly, they have planned for reauthorization of the No Child Left…er…Elementary and Secondary Education Act, but the foreshadowing has been ominous: $100 billion in “stimulus” for already cash-drenched American education; loud endorsement of national standards; dangling $350 million to bankroll national (read: federal) tests; and the smothering of DC school choice.

So meet the new propagandist, same as the old propagandist…only, quite possibly, even worse.

Reality, Reality, Reality…

This weekend I furnished an anti-national standards piece in a point-counterpoint of sorts in South Carolina’s Spartanburg Herald-Journal. You can check out what the paper published here, but for my complete argument you’ll have to go here. Unfortunately, the Herald-Journal ‘s  editors  removed a few crucial paragraphs on the powerful evidence that school choice works better than any top-down government standards. This was done largely, I was told, because the paper had had a very energizing exchange on choice just a month or so ago.  C’est la vie…

My reason for writing today is not to complain about the excision of my choice paragraphs, but to take issue with a few things that South Carolina Superintendent of Education Jim Rex – my op-ed “opponent” – wrote in his defense of national standards.

The first bit I have to quibble with could certainly just be the result of imprecise writing, not an intentional effort to deceive readers or anything like that, but it bears a quick clarification:

In addition to setting “proficiency standards” on their tests, individual states also are empowered under the U.S. Constitution to define “curriculum standards,” the skills and knowledge that students should learn at each grade level.

Let’s just be clear: The Constitution does not give states any power over education. It gives the federal government limited, enumerated powers and leaves all others to the states or people with whom they resided to begin with. And contrary to possible appearances, the term “curriculum standards” does not appear in the Constitution.

OK, next:

Already we’re hearing concerns from some that this project will lead to a conspiratorial “power grab” by the federal government and that it will open the door to national standards and national tests. But South Carolina’s previous experience with similar state-led efforts suggests otherwise.

The obscure examples of previous efforts Rex identifies after this quote notwithstanding, there are very good reasons to be afraid that national standards – even initially agreed to by a consortium of states – will lead to federal control. Here’s just one: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan just announced that Washington will furnish up to $350 million to create national tests connected to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, the exact national-standards effort Rex and I were debating.

Finally, this can’t go without comment:

A few alarmists have even suggested that the new Common Core State Standards Initiative will ultimately produce “dumbed down” standards just to make schools “look good.” But that ludicrous idea ignores the stark reality of our world.

The U.S. economy has changed dramatically. American companies compete today not only with businesses on the other side of town but also with businesses on the other side of the globe. American schools compete with schools in Taipei, Bangalore and Beijing, and they must prepare students to meet challenges that can’t even be imagined today.

Have I been missing something, or isn’t one of the major drivers of the national standards push precisely that states, both before and under No Child Left Behind, have produced, well, ” ’dumbed down’ standards just to make schools ‘look good’?” And haven’t they been doing this despite drastic changes in the U.S. economy? And if so, what exactly is so “ludicrous” about thinking that state or federal politicians will keep on doing the same politically expedient things they’ve been doing for decades?

Nothing, of course. What’s ludicrous is thinking that political reality will change just because different levels of politicians are in charge.

Checker Finn Is 99.44 Percent Right

Fordham Foundation president Checker Finn notes today that recent upticks on the National Assessment of Educational Progress cannot be reasonably credited to the No Child Left Behind act (hat tip to Bill Evers). The NCLB, President Bush’s signature education initiative, was supposed to improve student achievement through bureaucratic accountability measures.

But after noting that NCLB’s proponents can’t back up their claims that the law is working, Finn suggests that we need an “education-achievement ‘audit agency’ to sort out the claims and counterclaims about student performance.”

Maybe. But Amazon.com didn’t have to be told by a federal product quality audit czar to allow its customers to rate the products it sells. They’ve done it because it’s good business. In fact, no matter what product or service you’re interested in, there are resources on the Web to find out virtually anything you could possibly want to know about it. Reviews by users, professional reviews, criticism from competitors…. As a result, consumers are better informed than ever before.  Except in education, which operates outside the free enterprise system.

Sure, we could add a bureaucratic audit agency and hope that it will make our bureaucratic education accountability law accountable, and that that, in turn, will make our bureaucratic education system efficient and innovative.

Or we could just do what we know already works in every other sector of the economy: let consumers choose, and make it easy for a diversity of public and private schools compete to serve them.