Topic: Education and Child Policy

The Political Possibility Delusion

Today the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation – a neo-con education think tank – released The Proficiency Illusion, a report detailing how low many states have set their “proficiency” standards under the No Child Left Behind Act. As discovered before, Fordham finds that many states set “proficiency” at surface-scraping levels, most likely in an effort to avoid sanctions under the law, or even more likely, just so their leaders can continue to tell their citizens “don’t worry, everything’s fine.”

Yesterday, I wrote about Diane Ravitch’s assault on NCLB in the New York Times, and took major issue with only one thing that she called for: national standards. Well, the Fordham folks make the same proposal, suggesting that it’s insane that we have no, single, curricular standard:

First, it’s crazy not to have some form of national standards for educational achievement—stable, reliable, cumulative, and comparable. That doesn’t mean Uncle Sam should set them, but if Uncle Sam is going to push successfully for standards-based reform he cannot avoid the responsibility of ensuring that they get set.

Now, forget for a second that the Fordham folks are saying that Uncle Sam needn’t set national standards but that it should set them all the same. What’s more important is that Fordham fails to address the same unavoidable problem that Ravitch missed: As long as government controls education, political forces will ensure that standards stay low and easy to meet. It is, simply, the absolutely inescapable conclusion one reaches after examining the history of public schooling generally, and the 40-plus years of federal involvement. Indeed, the No Child Left Behind Act and consistently bankrupt state standards prove this beyond a doubt, yet some conservatives still push for national standards, ignoring political reality and forgetting all the progressive educator, teacher union, and other special interest domination of education conservatives have been complaining about for decades.

The history of American education proves one thing: When government runs education, education works for the people in government, not parents and children. That’s why any national standards adopted by government – whether Uncle Sam or some consortium of states – are doomed to failure, and why the only way to get high standards – and critical competition and innovation to boot – is universal school choice.

It’s time for big government conservatives to accept political reality, forget about hopeless national standards, and put all their energy into giving parents – not politicians – the real power in education.  

So Close, Yet So Far

In today’s New York Times, education historian Diane Ravitch declares that Congress should kill the No Child Left Behind Act and get out of education. Well, almost.

In her piece, Ravitch runs through a litany of problems with NCLB, not the least of which is that the law encourages states to set “proficiency” standards as low as possible, and encourages NCLB supporters like President Bush and Education Secretary Spellings to exaggerate its effectiveness. Ravitch also rightly takes the law to task because through it Congress sets reforms and penalties for bad schools, “which is way beyond its competence.” Unfortunately, she stops short of calling for full federal withdrawal from education, asserting that Washington “is good at collecting and disseminating information,” and declaring the need for “a consistent national testing program in which officials have no vested interest in claiming victory.”

It is actually a very debatable proposition that the feds are good at collecting data – a look at the federal Digest of Education Statistics, for instance, shows some pretty long lags between when data is collected and when it becomes available to the public – but that’s not the big problem with Ravitch’s piece. The big problem is the national testing proposal. Quite simply, as long as we have public schools – meaning, schools run by government – government officials will always, always, always have a vested interest in “claiming victory.” As a result, unless the system is fundamentally changed, no matter how the standards are designed and implemented we will always get lowest-common-denominator outcomes:

  1. Easy standards and tests, voluntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will likely adopt the standards and have little political incentive to lower them. The outcomes, however, will be poor.
  2. Difficult standards and tests, voluntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will have little incentive to adopt the standards and outcomes will be poor.
  3. Easy standards and tests, involuntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will adopt the standards and have little political incentive to lower them. The outcomes, however, will be poor.
  4. Difficult standards and tests, involuntary adoptions: Politicians at all levels will adopt the tests, but will exert constant political pressure to make them easier, just as we’ve seen with NCLB. The outcomes, again, will be poor.

So what’s the solution if not national standards? Fundamentally change the system: Get the feds out of education, and implement universal school choice at state and local levels. Then, since they won’t run the schools, public officials won’t have the same, dangerous, vested interests in the results, and schools that do a bad job will, at last, have a very strong interest in responding to parents, not running to politicians.

Do Texas Taxpayers Get Longhorn Straight through the Middle?

Let me make one thing clear right off the bat (pun not intended): I’m a fan of college sports.

As I’ve written before, though, I have some problems with big-time college athletics because I think that private schools are at a huge disadvantage against public schools, if for no other reason than private school alumni donors have to spend their money on lots of their alma maters’ needs, academic and athletic, while state taxpayers take care of public schools’ academic stuff, letting alums focus on sports. (There are lots of other problems, but I’ll stick to my favorite for now.) A fascinating breakdown of athletics spending at the University of Texas in Sunday’s Austin-American Statesman illustrates just how excessive at least one public schools’ athletics budget can get, with UT set to spend $107.6 million on athletics this year, double what the school spent just six years ago. Of course, UT probably needs to fork out that much cash to make sure its football players have such things as a “lounge area with game tables, 125 personalized lockers for the players, five flat-screen TVs and a three-dimensional, lighted 20-foot Longhorn on the ceiling.”

Of course, none of this proves that Texas taxpayers are footing the academic bills so alums can focus on the thrill of victory, but there is nationwide evidence that such displacement might just be happening. As the American-Statesman notes:

Big-time sports can cost schools money in other ways, too. This spring, an analysis of Division I-A schools by the Journal of Sports Management found athletic department donations represent a larger and larger share of total university giving. “In some cases, the increase in athletics giving may be coming at the expense of academic gifts,” said co-author Jeffrey Stinson, a North Dakota State University marketing professor.

So, while we don’t know for sure from this article, it seems quite possible that, at least in part, Texas fans are able to cheer because Texas taxpayers are getting a longhorn straight through the middle.

Why We Fight Today… and Tomorrow?

Two news items highlight how divisive public schooling in the United States is today, and how much worse it could potentially be were we ever to adopt a national curriculum.

The first article tackles Banned Books Week, an event organized by the American Library Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other groups, that will feature readings all over the nation of controversial books like Judy Blume’s Forever and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War. According to the ALA, in 2006 there were over 546 challenges to books held in public and school libraries. Unfortunately, what the article neglects to mention is that in our public schools and libraries such battles are both inevitable and, no matter what the outcome, always result in the crushing of someone’s rights. As long as libraries are paid for by all taxpayers, all taxpayers have equal rights to demand both that the libraries carry the books they want and NOT carry material they find objectionable. One man’s book-banning battle is another’s revolt against compelled support of repugnant speech.

In Okinawa, Japan, the subject of the second article, we see just what kind of widespread acrimony a national curriculum can produce, again because all people are forced to support teachings imposed by the most politically powerful group, and because there is no alternative to government-sanctioned content, no matter how controversial that content might be. According to The Japan Times, on Saturday roughly 110,000 people rallied in Okinawa to protest a directive from Japan’s education ministry that history textbook publishers strike references in their books to military-imposed civilian suicides in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa. Were the United States ever to adopt a national history curriculum, imagine the fights we’d have over the treatment of race, religion, class, etc? And we don’t even have to think about something as inherently values-laden as history. Just look at the acrimony that’s accompanied our on-going “reading wars” and you can easily imagine the conflict any national standards would cause.

Tax and Spend 101

Today, as expected, President Bush signed the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which cuts subsidies to lenders in major federal student loan programs (good) but then directs almost all the savings to Pell Grant increases, interest rate cuts, and loan forgiveness for lendees in public service jobs (all bad). One major reason Bush likely signed the bill is offered in USA Today:

The action allows both the Bush administration and Congress to say they have done something to ease the burden of paying for college, a popular political priority.

Yup. While Bush has for a long time called for Pell Grant increases to help truly low-income students, he said he didn’t like much of the rest of the bill, which simply throws more money at often well-to-do students and graduates. It’s likely he ultimately signed the bill, then, because it’s politically popular.

Of course it is: The middle-class-and-above students and families who will largely reap the benefits of this redirection of taxpayer money from lenders to students are a big voting bloc. But not only is that a bad reason to support this legislation – get ready for the tuition increases that will inevitably swallow any new buying power – but signing this bill into law seems to be little more than a continuation of the big-government, big-spending profligacy that’s helped put the GOP in a minority position that seems likely to get even smaller come November 2008.

Test Score Story the Media Will Miss

The latest 4th and 8th grade test scores for “The Nation’s Report Card,” or National Assessment of Educational Progress, were released this morning. They show improvement in reading and math, particularly at the 4th grade.

The story that the media will report will revolve around claims by No Child Left Behind advocates that their law is responsible for these improvements. In reality, NCLB almost certainly has little to do with these results, since they simply continue patterns that date back at least to 1990 – a dozen years before the law was passed.

But that’s not the real story. The real story is that none of these improvements have been persisting through to the end of high school. What families and business leaders care about is how well students are prepared for life and work at the end of high school. As the NAEP Long Term Trend results show, the mathematics achievement of 17-year-olds has been flat since 1990, and their reading achievement has actually declined. In fact, achievement among 17-year-olds is flat or declining in math, reading, and science since the first NAEP tests were administered in the late 60s and early 70s – despite the fact that real spending has doubled to more than $11,000 per pupil over that period.

What that means is that the improvements in the earliest grades simply represent a shifting of when learning is happening, not an increase in what students ultimately learn. We are, in the hackneyed phrase, merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as it continues to slip beneath the waves.

That’s the sad but true story that the American people need to be told.