Education chair takes aim at ‘No Child’

April 21, 2011


During 25 years in the Marine Corps, including flying helicopters in Vietnam, Rep. John Kline, a Minnesota Republican, developed the skill of maintaining small-unit cohesion. He will need this skill in his new job.

Half the Republican members of the committee he now chairs are in their first term, and he laughingly guesses that in 2010 “about half of them campaigned on abolishing the Education Department.” Ronald Reagan was an abolitionist, and Kline has proposed legislation to replace Ulysses Grant’s visage with Reagan’s on the $50 bill.

Kline, now in his fifth term, chairs the Education and the Workforce Committee that will have jurisdiction over rethinking No Child Left Behind, which soon will be 10 years old and may not recognizably survive to see its 12th birthday. As a Marine, one of Kline’s assignments was to carry the “football” — the package containing the nuclear launch codes — for Presidents Carter and Reagan. Education policy involves no intimations of Armageddon, but will force conservatives to confront a contradiction between their correct theory and a stubborn fact.

Their theory is that education in grades K through 12, which gets most of the Education Department’s attention, is a quintessentially state and local responsibility, so the department is inimical to local control of education. Created by a Democratic-controlled Congress in 1979, the department was promised by candidate Jimmy Carter, who in 1976 became the first presidential candidate ever endorsed by the National Education Association, the largest teachers union.

Unfortunately, the stubborn fact is that local control means control by the teachers unions. Most school boards are elected, often in stand-alone elections in which turnout is low and the unions’ organization prevails. This, Kline says, “is exactly the conversation I’m having with my new members.” He notes that in Minnesota, since school board elections were moved to regular election days, some people not supported by the unions have won.

He emphatically favors “a greatly reduced federal footprint” in primary and secondary education. About NCLB, he is decorous, calling it “well-intentioned.” What do teachers in his district think? “They hate it.”

This is understandable, given Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s recent estimate that more than 80,000 of the nation’s 100,000 public schools are going to fail to meet NCLB’s requirement of “adequate yearly progress” when that is measured in testing this spring.

Duncan says 82 percent could fail, compared to 37 percent last year. Such a one-year increase would be startling, but the trend is inauspicious: 28 percent failed in the 2006-07 school year.

And success — make that “success” — might be worse than failure. NCLB decrees that schools shall receive 100 percent proficiency by 2014, which is a powerful incentive for states to define proficiency down. The New York Times reports:

“In South Carolina, about 81 percent of elementary and middle schools missed targets in 2008. The state Legislature responded by reducing the level of achievement defined as proficient, and the next year the proportion of South Carolina schools missing targets dropped to 41 percent.”

There also are reasons to suspect that NCLB’s threat of labeling schools as failures constitutes an incentive to cheat. In a number of jurisdictions, including 103 schools in the District of Columbia, machines that grade the tests have detected suspiciously high levels of erasures as test-takers changed incorrect to correct answers.

Kline promises that the current system for measuring “adequate yearly progress” “will not exist when we are done.” And he says “we have to get rid of this ‘highly qualified teacher’ thing” in NCLB. He thinks “qualified” is shorthand for teachers processed by the normal credentialing apparatus of education schools and departments. The stress, Kline says, should be on “highly effective teachers.” He favors more charter schools — public schools operating outside union restrictions. He notes that when unions say these schools are “unfair” because “they work under different rules,” he tersely responds: “Precisely.”

There are 14,000 more or less autonomous school districts. Kline knows that at this moment of waning confidence in the federal government, it is strange to assume that leverage from a combination of national tests and national money can efficiently improve the system. And it is stranger still to assume that even if this combination could do so, Washington has the knowledge to move all 14,000 in the right direction. In this Marine from Minnesota, the man and the moment have met.

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


Paul R Getto 5 years, 3 months ago

Interesting points, Mr. Will. NCLB is well-intended, but based on lies GWB and Secretary Paige promulgated with their program in Houston. If we want a newer, researched-based large-scale improvement model, the Kansas Mid 1990's QPA system would suffice. In short, it says, "Prove you are training staff and changing their behaviors in the classroom; prove you are engaging the community in the conversation and getting them into the schools to help and observe; prove you are accounting for each group of students' academic progress and show us how you intend to improve the situation using multiple measures of success." Relying on one-shot, bubble sheet tests to "evaluate" a school annually is not school improvement. Like all complex systems, schools are difficult to change, but many have proven it can be done for decades starting in the 1960's. Let us hope the next iteration of ESEA is a good one, funded well and monitored in a sane fashion that leads to real improvements. People tend to like standardized tests for the same reasons they like political polls. It's easy, 'instant' and simple to understand. The 'facts' presented by these measures are not facts, they are just numbers.

cato_the_elder 5 years, 3 months ago

Made_in_China is dead wrong. QPA stunk, just as NCLB stinks. The reason is precisely as Will says:

"And success — make that “success” — might be worse than failure. NCLB decrees that schools shall receive 100 percent proficiency by 2014, which is a powerful incentive for states to define proficiency down."

And, folks, as intelligent people both inside and outside of the public education establishment long ago predicted, that's exactly what's happened. Both QPA and NCLB embrace concepts linked to "outcomes-based education," or OBE. While this initially appealed to corporate bean-counters who were obsessed with outcomes rather than inputs and who had understandably become tired of trying to employ high school graduates who couldn't read or write coherently, many of those people still don't understand that under OBE in its purest form, there are no C students. The theory posits that every student is an A student, but some of them just don't know it. Therefore, you simply keep teaching it until everybody "gets it," which of course never happens, while the kids who were able to "get it" the first time are essentially ignored or enlisted to teach their peers.

The bottom line? An "A" grade gets gradually dumbed down, the entire system becomes dumbed down, and our public education system gets worse every year despite spending untold sums of money on it.

NCLB should be abolished immediately. The role of the federal Department of Education should be limited to providing block grants to states, which can best determine how to spend what has been allocated to them.

Just remember this: We can teach anyone to dunk a basketball. All we have to do is lower the goal.

speak_up 5 years, 3 months ago

Wow. I never thought I would agree with anything you had to say, but I do! Wow.

jafs 5 years, 3 months ago

Concerns about standards in education are very valid.

But giving states and local areas more control isn't a way to ensure high standards.

In fact, it is the power of the states to simply re-define proficiency downward that causes the problem mentioned in the column.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 3 months ago

This is one muddled mess of an editorial, George.

Sure, NCLB is a mess. But how is that the fault of teachers' union?

I know that union-busting and class warfare have been the focus of Republicans ever since Reagan, but the economy was trashed by the investor class, not workers and their unions, and attacking schools and teachers will not make it all better.

notanota 5 years, 3 months ago

Precisely. Plus we already have data showing that neither voucher nor lottery-run charter systems have better outcomes in statistically matched groups of students.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 3 months ago

CTE: "The bottom line? An "A" grade gets gradually dumbed down, the entire system becomes dumbed down, and our public education system gets worse every year despite spending untold sums of money on it." === Interesting comments. I agree with the first sentence. Grades are meaningless anyway; it's performance (outcomes) that count. The average grade in high school and college is now a "B." Public education is improving over time and money does matter. I understand your frustration, however and your urge to repeat well-known talking points. As in all things, money matters and the culture surrounding each child's school and neighborhood is a huge influence on how well any particular school may do. I'd accept the "money doesn't matter" for schools if I'd see the principle applied to another complex organization, the military or a business, for example. I'd also be inclined to accept the principle if the schools and states with 'lots of money' were desperately trying to give it away to those with more needy children because "after all, money doesn't matter to us." Shanti

Paul R Getto 5 years, 3 months ago

Bozo: You know the facts. The rich are broke and the middle class and the poor must pay for it, including the unions. When will Sam's muscular jesus try that in KochKansas? I predict in a year or two. First they have to cut another $500-600 dollars from the per pupil education funding. National academic standards are coming; the question is will they benefit anyone other than those who write, publish and sell them? Other countries have unitary systems controlled from the national capital, but they still struggle with similar problems, particularly if they try to educate all the students.

jafs 5 years, 3 months ago

If I remember correctly (it's been a long time), when I was in high school, we had to take "Regents exams" in subjects each year - ie. 9th grade chemistry, etc.

I believe it was a state test, but I don't see why something similar wouldn't work at a national level.

It would create consistent standards, but also allow for variation in student performance - all students who pass don't get the same grade.

We'd have to identify the subjects and standards we want to hold all schools to, which might not be easy, but then each student would be guaranteed a certain minimum level of education, regardless of where they live or how much money they have. Isn't that the whole idea of public education?

Of course, we'd also have to help identify what factors are hindering some students, and find a way to help them improve.

States and local areas could have leeway in how they structure their programs, as long as students are meeting the minimum standards - eg. passing test on the exam.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 3 months ago

Yes, NCLB is a mess. But what is clear is that the educational system is America has been a mess for decades. To blame any one program, any one administration, any one political party would be wrong. The fact that a certain solution did not fix the problem does not prove that the solution caused the problem. The problem predated the solution. Where do we go from here. Let's see, we have a Federal Dept. of Education along with 50 state Depts. of Education, unknown numbers of local Boards of Education, etc. I cannot even begin to imagine the amount of money it takes to sustain these bureaucracies. These are dollars that could and should be spent on education but are instead spent (not wasted, but spent inefficiently). The Federal Dept. of Education is there to ensure that all states provide a level of education reasonably similar to that of other states. Children in Mississippi deserve a level of education reasonably similar to the children of Vermont. State depts. are charged with carrying out federal mandates while local boards deal with issues specific to each locality.
It seems to me that there are too many layers of bureaucracy that are just eating away at our tax dollars. One level should be eliminated. As well intentioned as it was, I think it's the federal level that needs to go. I hope the people of Mississippi (or Kansas for that matter) value education as much as the people from Vermont, but I think the history of federal involvement has not brought up the level of the states that were previously doing badly, they have just made us more uniformly bad.
One last thought, just to be clear. If there were any savings from an elimination of one level of bureaucracy, that money should be funneled directly back to classrooms, not returned to taxpayers as some sort of rebate. That money still needs to be spent on education.

notanota 5 years, 3 months ago

Or maybe it needs more teeth to the federal regulation and less bad local regulation.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 3 months ago

Maybe. I'm not opposed to one or the other. I'm just suggesting that so much bureaucracy is eating up the funds. I'd just like to see less dollars at the Dept. of Education and put those dollars into the classrooms.

heygary 5 years, 3 months ago

There are a very few ideas in life that I have found to be axiomatic ... one of those is "You get what you inspect". As pointed out above, the "School System" in this country long ago became a money making machine for a lot of folks ... many of which get no where near a classroom! One would think that if the concern is truely the betterment of our children's education, the system would not be so chronically allergic to performance monitoring!

Paul R Getto 5 years, 3 months ago

heygary: I don't think schools object to accountability, and they shouldn't. The 'accountability' movements and the measurements they use are part of the problem, not the concept. Good teachers have agonized for centuries about whether or not their students are mastering the materials. Bad teachers need to go sell shoes or insurance and no accountability system will deal with this issue, only courageous school boards and skilled mentor teachers and administrators who know how to supervise, evaluate and help people improve their service to the profession and students. The general impressions of schools are often inaccurate. People who spend time volunteering in schools and parents of students actually in schools are, for the most part, pleased. Read any Gallup Poll from the past 20 years...........a majority of parents with kids in school give them an "A" or a "B." "more than three-quarters of parents (77%) give their own child's school an "A" or a "B," up from 71% in 1985."

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