Advertisement

Opinion

Opinion

Federal school initiatives have poor record

March 18, 2010

Advertisement

— Doubling down on dubious bets is characteristic of compulsive gamblers and federal education policy. The nation was essentially without such policy for grades K through 12, and better off for that, until 1965. In that year of liberals living exuberantly, they produced the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Now yet another president has announced yet another plan to fix education. His aspiration has a discouraging pedigree.

In 1983, three years after Jimmy Carter paid his debt to teachers’ unions by creating the Education Department, a national commission declared America “a nation at risk:” “If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” So in 1984, Ronald Reagan decreed improvements.

They did not materialize, so in 1994 Congress decreed that by 2000 the high school graduation rate would be “at least” 90 percent and students would be “first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.” Even inflated by “social promotions,” the graduation rate in 2000 was about 75 percent (it peaked at 77.1 in 1969), and among 38 nations surveyed, Americans ranked 19th in mathematics, just below Latvians, and 18th in science, just below Bulgarians.

So, eschewing “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” in 2001 President George W. Bush undertook the loopy idealism of preposterous expectations. No Child Left Behind decreed that by 2014 there will be universal — yes, 100 percent — “proficiency” in reading and math. That will happen if enough states do what many have done — define proficiency down. NCLB gives states an incentive to report chimerical progress, so, unsurprisingly, state tests almost always indicate much more progress than does the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal test.

Obama understands that NCLB has perverse incentives. If we must continue the mistake of increasing federal supervision of primary and secondary education, Washington should at least reverse what NCLB does. Washington should set national standards and measurements and leave states free to choose how to meet them.

Obama wisely proposes broadening the focus beyond reading and math, a constructed emphasis that encourages neglect of science and history. NCLB has deepened the historical amnesia that conservatives deplore, but conservatives should know that national standards for public education will inevitably reflect the public education culture that is a large part of the problem. To imagine the soggy souffle of political correctness that national history standards would be, remember the offensive standards proposed in the mid-1990s and resoundingly rejected by Congress.

Obama would sensibly relax NCLB’s severe pass-fail judgments on schools, instead measuring the academic growth of children who, because of family background, start school far behind. And he admirably proposes making more severe the consequences of a school’s substantial and protracted failure to produce student progress: A school might have to replace at least half its staff, or even be closed.

But how does one fulfill — or know when one has fulfilled — Obama’s goal of “college and career readiness” for every child by 2020. That gauzy goal resembles the 1994 goal that by 2000 (when, Congress dreamily decreed, every school “will be free of drugs and violence”) every child would start school “ready to learn.” Is “college and career readiness” one goal or two? Should everybody go to college? Is a college degree equivalent to career — any career? — readiness?

If such readiness is not measurable, this is another airy puff of legislative cotton candy, similar to NCLB’s guarantee that every teacher will be “highly qualified.” Qualification measured how? Probably by relying on the redundantly refuted theory that traditional credentialing — e.g., a degree from an education school — guarantees competence.

NCLB’s emphasis on measuring students’ expanding knowledge has improved education policy that until recently was exclusively focused, as the public education lobby preferred, on monetary inputs rather than cognitive outputs. From the time the baby boom generation began going through the school system like a pig through a python, policy, until NCLB, assumed that cognitive outputs varied positively with financial inputs.

Abundant evidence demonstrates that money is not an Archimedean lever for moving the world of education. Inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending tripled over four decades; pupil-teacher ratios were substantially reduced as the number of teachers increased 61 percent while enrollments rose about 10 percent. Yet test scores stagnated or declined.

So, what will government do now to reverse the decline that has pretty much coincided with federal intervention since 1965? Double down.

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. georgewill@washpost.com

Comments

AtlasShrugging 4 years, 1 month ago

“Money does matter in education”

Why are poor Chinese and Indians out performing the United States in education?

In America it is a family and values issue not a money issue. It just happens that in America most with money also have strong families. Yet poor people have all the free time in the world to pursue education.

0

Paul R Getto 4 years, 1 month ago

Money does matter in education, like all other complex systems. If it did not, the 'rich' districts would be working hard to give all their 'extra' money to those who really need it. The concept does make for interesting discussion, however.

0

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years, 1 month ago

The mantra of most self-professed conservatives over at least the last 30 years has been to destroy government effectiveness, and in that, they've been quite effective.

0

tomatogrower 4 years, 1 month ago

Republicans don't mind spending money in foreign countries, especially if it makes the military industrial guys rich, but they don't want to spend money on our country's children. No more unfunded education mandates!!! I'm surprised there aren't more drop outs. All they do is train kids to take tests. As an adult, do you take tests every year? No, you apply your knowledge. These multiple choice questions mean nothing in the end.

0

AtlasShrugging 4 years, 1 month ago

A better question for our federal government is:

Why is our military 10,000 miles away while our southern boarder is being invaded? The Federal government cannot even conduct collective defense (its one true mandate) they cannot do anything right.

0

AtlasShrugging 4 years, 1 month ago

Perhaps because collective defense is the only role the federal government should play. However Afghanistan and Iraq do not qualify as defensive wars and are a waste of tax payer money.

0

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 4 years, 1 month ago

Funny how in conservative-world, money is an unnecessary luxury for education (or any other spending on social programs, for that matter,) but when it comes to the military, or tax cuts for the well-heeled, or any other form of corporate welfare, no amount of money is ever enough.

0

Commenting has been disabled for this item.