August 23, 2007 11:23AM

Naively Heroic Expectations for NCLB and National Standards

From the Teachers College Record, by way of AEI, we have Rick Hess of AEI and Checker Finn of the Fordham Foundation making another call for the federal government to fix most of what ails our K-12 education system. NCLB, they argue, has major problems. But in their view the way to fix it is relatively simple (emphasis added):

The trick is not to retreat from accountability, but to thoughtfully separate these components from one another and from naively heroic expectations.

Lawmakers should insist on a national X‐​ray using a uniform assessment that makes it simple to compare achievement across schools, districts, states, and demographic groups.

I’d really like them to unpack that black box. What exactly does insist entail? A resolution expressing the sense of the Congress? What should this very simple sounding uniform assessment look like, and what process and politics would get us to that goal?

The intense interest‐​group politics that would/​has befall any attempt to create a national test makes this one of those naively heroic expectations that the authors warned us against. I like the statements of the old Checker Finn who was skeptical of a high‐​stakes national test and concerned that even a NAEP used strictly for informational purposes was too vulnerable to political forces. What happens when the results mean millions in federal funds? 

And every state should be required to assess how effectively schools are boosting student achievement and to intervene appropriately in faltering schools and mediocre districts–or else forfeit federal funds.

I have to say this remedy also sounds like one of those naively heroic expectations. Just think of what people would say about politicians who voted to fix failing schools and save poor children by providing them with less money! This is called the “dual‐​clientele trap,” and it made welfare reform in the 1990’s an extremely difficult endeavor (and welfare spending, unlike education spending, was massively unpopular).

How can these proposals ever work in practice? Experience and logic suggest they never can.