Tag: no child left behind

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.

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.