Topic: Education and Child Policy

George’s Will be Done on NCLB

With reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) a total no-go for this year and probably next (since neither party wants the headache of having to fight over this hated law during an election year), it seemed that any serious discussion of NCLB was finished for the foreseeable future. And then along came columnist George Will, writing on Sunday that:

No Child Left Behind, supposedly an antidote to the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” has instead spawned lowered standards. The law will eventually be reauthorized because doubling down on losing bets is what Washington does. But because NCLB contains incentives for perverse behavior, reauthorization should include legislation empowering states to ignore it.

Will is right, and his column has gotten some people a little nervous.

Over at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) blog, Michele—with whom I served on a NCLB panel last week but who’s last name I can’t remember (sorry Michele)—is concerned about killing federal involvement in education because she thinks that without Title I funding “the achievement gap would probably be even greater.” Now, you can’t disprove a negative so I can’t directly refute this argument, but one look at federal spending on education versus academic performance shows pretty clearly that federal money does almost no academic good. Indeed, Andrew Coulson and I compared spending and performance in End It, Don’t Mend It: What to Do with No Child Left Behind and concluded that since the feds have been seriously involved in education “we have suffered…a catastrophic decline in educational productivity, analogous to buying 1970s cars today and paying twice their original selling price.”

Mike Petrilli at the Fordham Foundation has a different concern than Michele. He thinks leaving education up to states would be no better than leaving it to NCLB, and might be worse. He’s wrong—NCLB has encouraged states to lower standards—but it’s certainly true that state control of education hasn’t been working in a lot of places for a long time. Why? For the same reason it doesn’t work when education is controlled from Washington: politicians, bureaucrats, school administrators and other policymakers are concerned about their own self-interest first and foremost, and the best way to serve that is to have as little accountability, and as much money, in public schooling as possible.

Petrilli’s solution to the problem is “to move towards national standards and tests….It need not be a federal project–it probably shouldn’t be–but could result from state collaboration. Uncle Sam might provide some seed money (or the Gates Foundation could), and maybe offer incentives (money, regulatory relief) for states to sign up.”

Now, forget the fact that once the federal government provides “seed money” and other “incentives” to adopt national standards they will become federal standards. The really important point is this: For decades we have seen policymakers at every level of government put their own self-interest first, keeping standards low and money high. There is absolutely no reason to believe that somehow all the tigers will change their stripes with national standards. Make the standards high and they will be evaded. Make them low and they will be worthless. Either way, they will not work.

So what’s the solution to all this? Universal school choice. Give parents control over public education money instead of giving it to the educrats, and make the schools compete and provide a good education to stay in business. Only then will the catastrophic flaw in top-down control at any level—the parents and children the system is supposed to serve are completely at the mercy of their servants—be eliminated, and the power structure for real accountability be in place.

Of course, that’s not what the AFT wants because, well, teacher unions hate to compete for money. And Fordham? They pay lip-service to choice, but in the end seem incapable of concluding that parents don’t need their betters in Washington to tell them what to do. Neither of these things, though, change reality: Until parents have the real power in education that comes with school choice, nothing is going to improve.

George Will on the NCLB

George Will writes about proposals from Reps. Pete Hoekstra and Scott Garrett that “would enable states to push Washington toward where it once was and where it belongs regarding K through 12 education: Out.” Both Hoekstra and Garrett (pdf) have spoken at recent Cato forums on the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. Will offers a pithy if depressing prediction:

No Child Left Behind, supposedly an antidote to the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” has instead spawned lowered standards. The law will eventually be reauthorized because doubling down on losing bets is what Washington does.

Cato scholars have been pointing to the problems with NCLB for a long time. Back in 2001 Sheldon Richman and Darcy Olsen warned that getting the federal government involved wasn’t the way to improve accountability in schools. Larry Uzzell pointed out that the law not only intruded the federal government into matters best left to the states, but its actual effect would be to lower educational standards, just the opposite of what President Bush and his allies promised. Neal McCluskey and Andrew Coulson “find that No Child Left Behind has been ineffective in achieving its intended goals, has had negative unintended consequences, is incompatible with policies that do work, is at the mercy of a political process that can only worsen its prospects, and is based on premises that are fundamentally flawed.”

Homeschooler Wins Heisman

Florida quarterback Tim Tebow is the first sophomore to win the Heisman trophy as the nation’s outstanding college football player. Since 1935 every previous winner had been a junior or senior. He’s also surely the first homeschooled athlete to win the award. In the past decade or so we’ve gotten used to homeschoolers winning spelling bees and geography bees and science fairs. But who ever heard of a homeschooler winning a top athletic prize? Well, now we have.

Tebow benefited from a Florida law that allowed homeschooled students to play on public school athletic teams. Some states bar students who don’t attend a particular school from participating in extra-curricular activities. No doubt fans of the University of Florida Gators are glad that their state was so open to letting homeschoolers develop their athletic skills.

He sounds like a fine young man–born in the Philippines, where his parents were Christian missionaries and where he often spends summers preaching and doing charity work. And even more startling, he says he’ll return to the University of Florida for two more years rather than taking the big bucks from the NFL now.

Isabel Lyman wrote about homeschooling in a Cato study here. Of course, some people, like Russell Shaw at HuffingtonPost, don’t like homeschooling. They want to require that all parents turn their children over to the all-knowing, all-wise, efficient, effective, politically correct government schools. And they’re appalled at the idea that parents, not the state, should assume primary responsibility for the upbringing of the children they bring into the world. Shaw is afraid that Christian parents will teach their children creationism and other anti-scientific ideas. (Presumably not the parents whose homeschooled children are winning science fairs.) I wonder if he’d feel differently if he knew that homeschooling families are politically and culturally diverse; as Lyman writes, “There are two historical strains of homeschooling, a religious-right thread inspired by author Raymond Moore and a countercultural-left thread inspired by John Holt.” Or does he just think that, left or right, all children need to get the same thoughts drilled into their heads from the same textbooks?

In U.S. vs. the World, the World Keeps Winning

Last week, I wrote a bit about the latest results from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which showed U.S. fourth graders losing ground against kids in competitor nations. Well, yesterday another report came out — the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which examines high school-aged kids’ math and science literacy — and the news was bad again. (PISA, by the way, usually assesses reading in addition to math and science, but the U.S. had a bit of a test-booklet malfunction this time around, invalidating our scores. Apparently, we lag behind other nations in standardized-test quality control, too.)

Let’s look first at science literacy. In 2000, the first year the PISA assessment was conducted, U.S. students’ average science score was 499 on a scale of 0 to 1000, just about equal to the 500 average for countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of leading industrialized nations. In 2003, the next year PISA was administered, we fell further below the OECD mean of 500 with an average score of 491. Finally, in 2006 (the year covered in the latest report), we averaged 489, our lowest relative score yet.

How about mathematics literacy? In 2000, we were below the OECD average of 500, hitting 493. In 2003 we dropped further, with an average score of 483. And 2006? The OECD average was 498 and ours was 474, which, as in science, was our biggest deficit in PISA history.

So what does all this mean? As I wrote last week, one test does not a final verdict make, but combine PISA with PIRLS and other bad, recent testing results, and one can’t help but conclude that U.S. education is going in the wrong direction, and the biggest name in education reform—the No Child Left Behind Act—is a significant part of the problem.

NCLB: Putting Swine before PIRLS?

At least among education wonk-ish types, it’s well known that on national and international assessments American students perform best in 4th grade, decline by 8th grade, and do dismally in high school. Well yesterday a report was released—the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS)—which hinted that even our vaunted 4th graders might be losing ground. And this despite the fact that since 2002 the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has “demanded” good results starting in the 3rd grade.

There is, it should be noted, a bit of good news in PIRLS: Our kids scored above the PIRLS average—set at a “scale score” of 500—in both 2001 and 2006. But then, one would expect our kids to perform above average since we are the world’s leading economic power and, according to the PIRLS report, our gross national income (GNI) per-capita, after adjusting for purchasing power, was surpassed by only Norway and Luxembourg among PIRLS participants.

And then there’s the bad news. It starts with our average score dropping a tad between 2001 and 2006, going from 542 to 540. Worse, several countries and territories we’d beaten in 2001, including Russia, Hong Kong, and Singapore, surpassed us in 2006. And we can’t blame poverty for our problems: None of the places that moved ahead of us, at least as measured by GNI, are as well off as we are economically.

Importantly, the analytical limitations of average scores, and the generally small changes seen between 2001 and 2006, make PIRLS far from a final word on either NCLB or the general progress (or lack thereof) of American education. However, when coupled with other recent testing results, PIRLS adds to an increasingly clear conclusion about NCLB: the law is at best having no positive impact on American education, and is very likely having a negative one.

The Biological Process that Dare not Speak its Name

A century and a half after Darwin penned On the Origin of Species, the Florida state board of education is considering adding the word evolution to its official curriculum. Until now, it has been referred to only obliquely as “biological changes over time.”

At least one school district (of which Florida has only a handful) is already balking at the proposed change.

Most of my fellow evolutionists seem to think that government-mandated instruction in evolution, in state run schools, is the ideal path to biological enlightnment. Personally, I think 150 years of foot-dragging before seriously considering the use of the word evolution bodes ill for the quality of instruction that will follow.

The Good News on Cultural Decay — You Read It Here First

In Friday’s Washington Post, Michael Gerson hails “a groundbreaking essay by Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin in Commentary magazine, which notes that most “social indicators” have improved:

“Over the past fifteen years, on balance, the American family has indeed grown weaker,” the authors argue, “but almost every other social indicator has improved.” Crime rates have plunged, teen drug use and pregnancy have declined, educational scores are improving, welfare caseloads have fallen 60 percent, and the number of abortions has dropped.

That is indeed important news, often lost in conservative jeremiads about the state of the culture. But I’m not sure it’s actually “groundbreaking,” considering that you could have read it more than a year ago in Cato Policy Report or indeed right here at Cato@Liberty. As Radley Balko wrote in the September/October issue of Cato Policy Report,

Nearly every social indicator is trending in a direction most of us would consider positive.

Here are just a few examples, culled from government agencies and advocacy groups: Teen pregnancy is at its lowest point since government researchers have been keeping statistics. Juvenile crime has been falling for 20 years (though there was, admittedly, a slight uptick last year). Crimes against children are down. The number of reported rapes has dropped dramatically over the last two decades, even as social stigma against rape victims has subsided. Despite a negligible increase last year, overall crime in the United States has also been in decline for 15 years.

There’s more: Divorce is down. Teens are waiting longer to have sex. High school dropout rates are down. Unemployment remains low. And over the past decade, the overall abortion rate has dropped significantly.

If Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” Internet porn, and violent video games are indeed inducing a nationwide slouch toward Gomorrah, as conservative icon Robert Bork once put it, it’s difficult to discern from those statistics.

Or indeed you could have learned it earlier from former Cato fellow Stephen Moore, who noted in the Los Angeles Times in 1999 that:

  • Teen sexual activity in the U.S. fell by 11% from 1991 to 1997.
  • Cocaine and marijuana use have fallen by almost half since 1980.
  • Welfare caseloads have dropped by nearly 40% since 1993.
  • The crime rate has fallen by one-third since the mid-1980s and burglaries are down by half in many inner cities.
  • The abortion rate is down nearly 20% since 1990.
  • The divorce rate dropped 19% from 1981 to 1996.

Conservatives know that there is nothing new under the sun and that most great ideas are old ideas. So as long as the information celebrated by Wehner, Levin, and Gerson is true, it’s of little moment that it isn’t actually groundbreaking.