Topic: Education and Child Policy

Suspicious Standards

The primary belief underlying the No Child Left Behind Act – and much state-driven education reform – is that if governments set academic standards and then test students’ mastery of them, policymakers, parents, and the public will have the information they need to see how schools are doing and act on it. As Andrew Coulson and I explain in a new report on NCLB, however, that’s not how the belief has worked out in practice. Instead, most states have set low standards or used trickery to identify kids as “proficient” in math and reading when they’re really no such thing.

A report in the New York Daily News offers an interesting insight into one way by which such standards sliding can and has occurred, maybe intentionally, maybe not:

When test scores rise, politicians crow that schools are getting better, but a Daily News analysis of recent standardized math exams and a News experiment suggest another reason: The questions might be getting easier.

The News obtained technical details on high-stakes math tests given to fourth-graders across the state over the past six years and found that in every year when scores went up, testmakers had identified the questions as easier during pretest trials.

In years when scores were lower, pretest trials showed the questions were harder.

“That’s pretty strong evidence that something is just not right with the test,” said New York University Prof. Robert Tobias, who ran the Board of Education’s testing department for 13 years.

“If this were a single year’s data or two years’ data, I would say it would be inappropriate to make conclusions,” Tobias said. “But with the pattern over time …that’s prima facie evidence that something’s not right.”

Pretty Bad News in Higher Ed

First, the good news: Yesterday, a congressional conference committee passed legislation that would cut subsidies to lenders participating in federal student loan programs. Terrific! Lenders – especially Sallie Mae, the federally spawned queen of student loans – deserve no taxpayer-furnished profit, and this bill would get us a little closer to that ideal.

Unfortunately, the good news ends there. Only a measly $750 million out of about $22 billion in subsidy cuts would go to the taxpayers who have been forced to enrich lenders for decades – and that will be in the always-questionable from of “deficit reduction” – and the rest will be transferred to the other group on whom taxpayers have long been forced to lavish money through federal aid: students. The bill would cut interest rates on subsidized federal loans, for instance, from 6.8 percent to a minute 3.4 percent over four years; boost Pell Grants from the current maximum of $4,310 to at least $5,400 by 2012; and forgive loans after ten years of making payments for people in “public service” jobs ranging from firemen to prosecutors. And, in the end, the big lenders like Sallie Mae will probably be just fine, because the bill would institute an auction system in which lenders would bid for control over federal loans, giving the big guys huge advantages over little banks and lenders.

Student advocates are, of course, pleased as punch with all this, especially over at the New America Foundation, where for months they’ve been leading the charge against private lenders and for this auction scheme. Ironically, they partly hailed the compromise on the grounds that the auction would use “market forces to set student loan subsidy rates.” This, of course, begs the question: How can you love an auction because it supposedly uses market forces, while simultaneously supporting the gargantuan market distortion that is the overall federal student aid system? Unfortunately, the only possible answers seem to be that (a) you are a politician intent on bribing the college-going population and their parents to vote for you, (b) you are confused about how a real market works, (c) you work in academia and know that the more the government shells out, the better your life will be, or (d) all of the above.

Unfortunately, this legislation seems likely to be signed by president, and if it is, you can ultimately chalk it up to (d) being the answer in Washington.

Arguing Over the Emperor’s New Clothes

According to Alexander Russo at the Ed Week blog, Representative George Miller, chairman of the House education committee, has been going at it with Ed. Sec. Margaret Spellings over his proposed revisions to the No Child Left Behind act. Miller is quoted as saying that Spellings’ criticism that his revisions would “muck up accountability” are ”hokum.” This is very much like two members of the imperial court arguing over whether “the emperor’s new clothes” are fab or fugly. In order for NCLB to be “muck-uppable” it would have to be doing something useful to begin with. It isn’t. As Neal McCluskey and I document in our new study released today, NCLB has failed to fulfill its goals.

The Left Is Half Right on NCLB

Over at the popular leftish blog Crooks and Liars, Bluegal laments the No Child Left Behind Act, which is up for reauthorization this month. The nearly 100 comments on her post overwhelmingly echo her negative views. Nevertheless, it seems that she, her commenters, and the vast majority of Democrats in Congress want the law reauthorized. Why?

The reason for this apparent contradiction is that NCLB is only the latest incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which has been directing federal tax dollars to public schools since 1965. Leftish critics of No Child want to dilute or repeal most of the testing requirements introduced to the law in 2002, while increasing its funding. They believe that the testing provisions of NCLB are ineffective and likely harmful, but that federal spending is good for American education so long as it is not narrowly channeled into high-stakes testing. They’re half right.

As Neal McCluskey and I demonstrate in our new NCLB study (which we’ll be releasing on the Hill tomorrow), the evidence shows that the law’s testing and teacher qualification regimes have failed to improve achievement or narrow the gaps between groups. So the left’s skepticism on this point is justified. But the left-liberal goal of securing higher federal spending without bureaucratic “accountability” is both unattainable and undesirable.

A perennial blind spot of both major political parties is that they love to seize new powers and revenue streams while they’re in office, failing to realize that those same powers and dollars will inevitably fall into the hands of their ideological opponents. The Democrats gave us ESEA, and the Republicans eventually turned it into NCLB. As long as Republicans are elected they will try to hold schools bureaucratically “accountable” for the federal funding they receive – particularly given that real federal per pupil education spending has risen by a factor of 18 or so since the ESEA was passed in 1965. So even if the left manages to enact a “hands off but wallet open” version of NCLB this fall, it will live a short policy life, succumbing again to federal testing/performance mandates the next time Republicans control Congress.

For the sake of argument, though, would it do any good if it were a realistic long-term goal? Since it took Republicans a long time to get around to imposing the testing standards of NCLB, we actually have nearly four decades of experience with the ESEA with which to answer that question. Did higher spending translate into higher achievement? No. Federal spending went from about $50 per student in 1965 to nearly $900 per student in 2003-04. Total per pupil spending doubled to more than $11,000 over the same period. But at the end of their public schooling careers, students perform no better in reading and math today than they did nearly four decades ago. They’ve actually gotten worse in science (data from the Long Term Trends studies of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for 17 year-olds).

If liberals want to stop Washington from meddling in the classroom, as most claim, there is only one way to go about it: stop collecting and spending federal tax dollars on it. So long as American schools are beholden to the federal purse, they will be puppets on the end of federal purse strings – strings held, on a recurring basis, by Republicans.

Krugman on Education, Health Care

A few days ago, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman drew an equivalence between government provision of education and medical care for children:

We offer free education, and don’t worry about middle-class families getting benefits they don’t need, because that’s the only way to ensure that every child gets an education — and giving every child a fair chance is the American way. And we should guarantee health care to every child, for the same reason.

His argument would have more force if government actually ensured that every child gets an education. 

I once attended a dinner discussion with a bunch of health care big-wigs.  One highly educated woman – she is both an M.D. and a J.D. – began the dinner by declaring, “We need to make health care a right in this country, just as we make education a right.”

Later in the dinner, she complained that her organization’s materials must be written at an 8th-grade level to be understood by their target audience. 

I interrupted to ask how she reconciled those two statements: if we really have created a right to education, why the poor reading comprehension?  And if we create a parallel right to health care, how many people’s medical care will be stuck at an 8th-grade level?  Her answer was non-responsive.

It would be nice if Krugman and others would at least acknowledge that tradeoff.

No, a Disco Ball

In an interview in this morning’s USA Today, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is back to unbridled hyping of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). As has been her custom, her answers are popping with utterly unsubstantiated rhetoric, perhaps the most outrageous of which is her insistence that NCLB has somehow brilliantly illuminated heretofore widespread but invisible failure in public schooling. She says, for instance, that before NCLB the nation took “the ostrich approach” to our schools, but with the law we’re at last “shining a bright spotlight on under-achievement.”

Oh, come on! Americans have known about their awful schools for decades. I mean, did everyone think everything was hunky-dory in Detroit, Newark, Washington, DC, New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, and on and on until, suddenly, NCLB came along and revealed that – gasp! – the schools in those and many other places were actually dangerous, dilapidated dungeons of ignorance? Of course not! And didn’t A Nation At Risk put Americans in a tizzy about their schools back in 1983? Oh, and wasn’t Rudolph Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read a best-seller all the way back in the 1950s?

And what about that NCLB spotlight? At best, it’s a disco ball – it shines light, but light designed to dazzle much more than illuminate and confuse much more than clarify. So, while NCLB requires all states to bring kids to something called “proficiency” – enabling federal politicians to boast about their steely determination to educate all children – it leaves it to the state and local school officials who’s feet are supposedly being held to the fire to define proficiency and write the standards and tests. The result, as a recent study from Spellings’ own department has shown, has been that state officials and federal education fans have been able to point to rising state test scores to “prove” that NCLB is working, but the state test results themselves have essentially been lies, calling scores “proficient” that the feds themselves would call “basic” or “below basic.”

That sure is one wacky spotlight! What we need right now, especially with reauthorization of NCLB expected to begin when Congress returns from vacation next week, is not to shine a spotlight on our schools, but on both NCLB and all the damning evidence of Washington’s failures through decades of federal education policy. Then we’ll see that far from offering a solution to our education problems, Washington is a very big part of them. And don’t worry: All those troubles in the schools we’ve seemingly known about forever will almost certainly still be there when we move the spotlight off of Washington, and back onto them.

School Money for Nothing

If you want a very concrete example of what plagues the public schools in Washington, D.C., this story is for you. Bottom line: D.C. Public Schools are going to shell out $5.4 million this year for 68 employees who are currently slated to do … nothing.

It turns out these folks have no role in changes being made to the District’s school system, but they are too senior to let go. And this is a relatively small personnel hiccup for D.C. In 2003, the District “discovered” 640 employees who ended up costing $31 million.

It’s these sorts of things that make one think that perhaps funding really isn’t the primary problem in D.C. schools (that, and the nearly $20,000 per student D.C. has available), and that maybe — just maybe — it’s the bloated, lumbering system itself that’s the real educational enemy.