Lower Standards: The Solution to Failing Public Schools


The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is another failed example of a top/down bureaucratic fix for earlier failed top/down bureaucratic fixes to a government program which, in this case, is public schooling. Way back in 2001, Reason Foundation education maven Lisa Snell wrote a prescient article "Schoolhouse Crock" predicting that what would become NCLB would essentially do nothing to improve public schools. The NCLB supposedly set accountability standards and goals for schools in the hope that measuring failure would lead to improvements. 

Today's Washington Post and New York Times have fully confirmed Snell's prediction. From the Post

More than three-quarters of the nation's public schools could soon be labeled "failing" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the Obama administration said Wednesday as it increased efforts to revamp the signature education initiative of President George W. Bush. …

"This law is fundamentally broken, and we need to fix it, and fix it this year," [Education Secretary Arne] Duncan told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. "The law has created dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed. We should get out of the business of labeling schools as failures and create a new law that is fair and flexible and focused on the schools and students most at risk."

From the Times:

More than 80,000 of the nation's 100,000 public schools could be labeled as failing under No Child Left Behind, the main federal law on public education, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told Congress on Wednesday.  

So what are the onerous proficiency standards that the NCLB required public schools to meet? The Times gives an example:

When it took effect in 2002, the law required states to outline the 12-year statistical path they would follow in bringing all students to proficiency by 2014.

California, for example, had only 14 percent of students proficient in reading in 2002, but it promised to raise that level in every school by a few points each year. The state vowed to have 35 percent of students proficient by 2008, 57 percent by 2010 and 100 percent by 2014.

But like most other states, California has had trouble keeping up. By 2009, 39 percent of the state's elementary schools had missed the targets; last year, 60 percent of California's elementary schools fell short.

So what has happened to California proficiency scores? One can get some indication by looking at how well Golden State third graders have done. Since 2003 reading proficiency has improved from about 32 percent to nearly 45 percent. That's progress, but more than half of Bear Republic third graders are still not proficient readers. Expecting 100 percent reading proficiency may be unrealistic, but surely 45 percent is way too low.

Duncan argues that the "law is fundamentally broken, and we need to fix it." Well, the Times gives us a good example of just how the law will likely be "fixed." 

…the law gives states considerable leeway to manipulate their testing systems to help more schools meet goals. 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.

Problem: Can't meeting reading standards. Public school solution: Don't bother teaching kids to read; just lower the standards. 

Duncan is right when he argues that we need to create a system that is "fair and flexible and focused on the schools and students most at risk." Ten years ago, Snell outlined just how such goals could be achieved:

Real education reform would give parents a way to find a better quality education now, instead of waiting years for their failing or simply mediocre public school to improve. Until the federal government allows real education reforms—such as universal tax credits or actual vouchers that are at least equal to the federal portion of per-pupil spending—it will have little impact on the educational experience of students who need better schools while they're still in school.

Instead, the Feds will just define functional illiteracy down and teachers' unions will cheer.