September 9, 2008 4:19PM

Obama Touts Failed Federal Program

Senator Obama launched a major education counter-offensive today, in a speech laying out his vision for the future of American schooling. Calling for a renewal of the public school system to “meet the challenges of a new time,” Obama held up the National Defense Education Act of 1958 as a model for what he has in mind. He told the Dayton, Ohio crowd that “Eisenhower doubled federal investment in education after the Soviets beat us to space. That's the kind of leadership we must show today.”

The trouble is, the NDEA was an expensive failure. Congress’ goal was to improve achievement in math and science following the Soviet Union’s launch of the Satellite Sputnik. There are no nationally representative science results from the time, but high school mathematics performance actually fell in the eight years following passage of the law, according to national norm studies conducted by the College Board, which administers the SAT and PSAT (see figure below). By 1983, math scores had still not returned to the level they had been at before the NDEA was passed.

Math Scores, National Norm PSAT Studies
(11th graders), 1955 to 1983


national norm studies '55 to '83

(Source: College Board data reported in Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein, "What's Really Behind the SAT-Score Decline," Public Interest, no. 106 (Winter 1992): 32-56.)

Either the Senator’s advisors were unaware of the NDEA's disappointing results, or they offered it as a model despite them. Neither scenario inspires confidence in the future of federal education policy under an Obama presidency.

More on the results of federal education interventions like NDEA below the fold....

Could the decline be the result of more kids taking the test? No. Each time the test was administered by the College Board, it was to a random, nationally representative sample of all 11th graders.

Could the NDEA and subsequent federal programs have just taken a long time to work, ultimately resulting in a sustained improvement in performance in math and science? No. The Long Term Trend tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress become available around 1970. Here's what they show:

NAEP Long-Term Trends Results
(17-year-olds), 1969–70 to 2003–04

NAEP long term trends

[Sources: SOURCES: Rebecca Moran and Anthony D. Lutkus, NAEP 2004 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance in Reading and Mathematics (Washington: U.S. Department of Education, 2005), p. 17; Jay R. Campbell, Catherine M. Hombo, and John Mazzeo, NAEP 1999 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance (Washington: U.S. Department of Education, 2000), p. 9.]

Could the problem be that federal, state, and local governments have not spent enough on programs like NDEA and its successors? No. Here's the inflation adjusted history of public school revenues, in 2008 dollars:

spending history

[Sources: Thomas Snyder, Sally Dillow, and Charlene Hoffman, Digest of Education Statistics 2007 (Washington: U.S. Department of Education, 2008), Table 162. Missing values linearly interpolated. Historical consumer price index inflation factors from]

There is simply no getting around the fact that Barack Obama has hitched his ed policy wagon to an expensive failure. Caveat voter.