Has Federal Involvement Improved America’s Schools?

November 5, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared on Cato​.org on November 5, 2009.

The No Child Left Behind Act is up for renewal. It costs taxpayers tens of billions of dollars every year but the Obama administration is giving its reauthorization less serious attention than most people pay to their phone bill. Families facing tight budgets actually consider cancelling a service that doesn’t benefit them. (“Do I really need a landline if I already have a cell phone?”) But ending federal involvement in k‐​12 schooling is not something that education secretary Arne Duncan is even willing to talk about.

Here are three good reasons why we need to have that conversation:

First, we have little to show for the nearly $2 trillion dollars spent on federal education programs since 1965. As the chart demonstrates, federal education spending per pupil has nearly tripled since 1970 in real, inflation‐​adjusted dollars — but achievement has barely budged. In fact, the only subject in which achievement at the end of high school has changed by more than 1 percent is science, and it has gotten worse.

This overall average masks some tiny gains for minority children, such as a 3 to 5 percent rise in the scores of African American 17‐​year‐​olds. But even these modest improvements can’t be attributed to federal spending. Almost all of the gain occurred between 1980 and 1988, a period during which federal spending per pupil actually fell. And the scores of African American 17‐​year‐​olds have declined in the twenty years since, even as federal spending has shot through the roof.

Spending Per Pupil and Achievement of 17 Year Olds, % Change since 1970

The second reason we should seriously consider getting Congress and the White House out of America’s classrooms is that they are likely to make matters worse rather than better if we let their involvement continue. Consider this comment made by education secretary Arne Duncan in his recent speech about NCLB reauthorization:

“The biggest problem with NCLB is that it doesn’t encourage high learning standards. In fact, it inadvertently encourages states to lower them.… Low standards also contribute to the nation’s high school dropout rate.”

Duncan is mistaken. NCLB did lower academic standards, but it also lowered the dropout rate. Unfortunately, it appears to have done that by pressuring schools to graduate more unprepared students who haven’t mastered high school material. One of President Obama’s favorite economists, Noble laureate James Heckman, has shown that graduation rates declined steadily from the late 1960s until 2002, when NCLB was enacted. Then, suddenly, they ticked upward.

Why is that apparent improvement worrisome? Heckman explains: “NCLB gives schools strong incentives to raise graduation rates by any means possible.” He notes that as soon as the law was passed, schools started flunking far fewer kids and graduating more of them. Heckman isn’t absolutely sure if these sudden gains are real “or are an indication of schools cheating the system in the face of political pressure.” But he concludes that the timing suggests schools are cheating. And it’s not “the system” that’s being cheated, it’s the kids.

It’s troubling that Duncan seems unaware of this, because his proposed changes to NCLB would likely encourage the apparent cheating revealed by Heckman. Duncan wants to be tighter on the goals and looser on the means for meeting them. In other words, he wants to put even more pressure on districts to show results, and leave them even freer in the way they get them. If schools were already scamming the system when they had less freedom and pressure, Duncan’s recommendation seems bound to make matters worse.

Finally, unless American families and educators send Washington packing, federal involvement will become even more intrusive. A key goal of this administration is to homogenize standards and testing nationwide. Is your son or daughter really identical to every other child you’ve ever met? Does he or she learn math, reading, biology, and history at the same pace as every other 9, 12, or 15 year old? If not, it makes no sense to place all children on a national education conveyor belt that drags them through the curriculum at a fixed pace.

Wouldn’t it be better to make schools adapt to the needs of individual kids instead of trying to forcibly fit the kids into a single bureaucratic learning schedule? Wouldn’t it be better to give teachers the professional freedom to do their jobs, and then make it easier for families to pick the best schools for their children — public, private, or parochial?

Unless we tell Congress and the administration to butt out of the nation’s schools we may never find out.

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