Lower Standards: The Solution to Failing Public Schools

|

NEA's new motto

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.  

NEXT: Reason Morning Links: Union Bill Passes Wisconsin Senate, Illinois Bans the Death Penalty, Dalai Lama Calls It Quits

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. The 2 am bar axiom always holds true.

    Lower your standards raise your average.

    1. Maybe RC could add this to his list of immutable laws (is it RC or someone else, I always forget?)

      You know, “foreseeable consequences are not unintended”…also, “lower your stds, raise your avg”

  2. Maybe if we started counting foul balls as hits there would be a lot more .400+ plus hitters.

    1. It’s only a strike if you swing.

      Thus, if you don’t try, you’ll never fail.

      1. Yes! Abolish the tests and give the kids the scores we know they would have gotten! It’ll save the taxpayers money, too!

        1. Why should only all the kids in Lake Woebegon be above average?

        2. I read something about a study that measured both actual achievement as well the student feeling or confidence in said achievement. American students ranked number one in the latter category, confidence in achievement and twenty-something in actual achievement.

          (Can’t find the link though)

          This to me is clearly a byproduct of the self-esteem focused education system and the priority on making sure that kids “feel” good about his or her abilities and achievement.

      2. “The lesson here is: Never try.”
        -Homer Jay Simpson

  3. “If you can’t read this, thank the State.”

    Reading is obsolescent in the high-tech world of the 21st Century.

  4. Problem: Can’t meeting reading standards.

    OK, this is technically a writing standard….

  5. Maybe we should lower our standards for teachers instead. Say, remove the education degree requirements? The union would be all for that, right?

    1. I see no problem with this. As teachers’ unions tell us every time the subject of pay for performance comes up, the impact of a public school teacher on the educational outcome of students is marginal at best. I don’t understand why school districts just don’t get whoever will work for minimum wage since the person teaching the class is really a non-factor according to public school teachers themselves.

      1. So like ‘South Park’, we should just hire some Mexicans to do this work.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D-Yikes!

  6. The schools aren’t failing. They are doing exactly what they were intended to do.

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

    What guys in highschool who wanted to get a date (any date) used to call “aiming low.”

  8. 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.

    Instead of lowering their standards, NEA should pull a Charlie Sheen and insist on calling schools that don’t meet proficiency “winning,” not failing.

  9. 2 weeks ago I got a phone call from my daughter’s 3rd grade teacher because my daughter wasn’t completing her class work on time – the fact of the matter is my daughter does everything incredibly slow including eating, homework, brushing her teeth, everything, it’s just who she is – so this call was no surprise. What was a surprise was that the teachers solution was to lower the standard and only require her to do 1/2 the work of the other kids in class.

    Seriously? Her solution was to dumb down the work for my child and hold her to a different standard. How pathetic. No, she needs to do her work – period.

    My husband and I told the teacher to send all the back work home with our daughter and we would make sure it was completed. It took 4 hours total but it was completed and sent back to school. The teachers response, “Well I have 19 of them to deal with. It’s not like I could spend my time focusing on [our daughter].

    Next year my daughter will be home schooled. They aren’t even trying to hide their incompetance or contempt anymore.

    1. They aren’t even trying to hide their incompetance or contempt anymore.

      You are, to them, just a busy body, know-it-all layperson, Angela. AFATAC, you are some interloper asking impertinent questions about their religion.

  10. Could we please abolish the Department of Education? And can someone tell me why we have a Department of Labor?

    1. Labor Statistics don’t just compile themselves you know.

    2. “And can someone tell me why we have a Department of Labor?”

      To count how many people are doing make work jobs at the Department of Education.

  11. under our improved No Parent Left Behind, DoE recognises education begins at home. So kids w failing parents can use vouchers to transfer families. oh yea, plus gun confiscation & death panels bwahahahaha

  12. It works elsewhere: Politicians become dumbasses. Lower our expectations of Washington.

    We’ve been playing this game for decades.

  13. If you MUST have a public school system:

    Set targets for teachers at the beginning of each year in terms of what the children assigned to them are expected to master by the end of the year. (Do not allow the teachers themselves to set the targets.)

    At the end of the year, test the students and determine what percentage of the students assigned to a teacher reached the target levels.

    Then fire the bottom 3 to 5 percent of the teachers.

    We would very quickly be a dramatic improvement.

    1. Re: Aersen,

      Then fire shoot the bottom 3 to 5 percent of the teachers.

      THEN we would very quickly be a dramatic improvement.

    2. With the exception of firing teachers, you’ve essentially outlined the NCLB requirements.

      1. I think that is my point. If you don’t get rid of the bad ones, they are going to continue to accumulate in the system.

        And the ones who would otherwise “just do enough to get by” will know they can’t sleepwalk through the year but actually make an effort to teach.

  14. If the Democrats wanted to spend eleventy billion dollars to teach every American kid to read, I bet you wouldn’t hear any talk of 100% reading proficiency being an unattainable goal.

    1. But Cuba! They achieved 100% literacy!

      /Michael Moore in the Potemkin village mode.

  15. Real education reform would give parents a way to find a better quality education now[…]

    You want it now? Then,

    HOMESCHOOL!

    1. Homeschooling is NOT a viable option for a large percentage of the population. [My WEG: 85%+]

      Firstly, because many families have two working parents who do not have the time to devote to educating their children.

      Secondly, many of the parents themselves are only marginally literate or numerate.

      1. Re: Aresen,

        Firstly, because many families have two working parents who do not have the time to devote to educating their children.

        The only reason there are 2 working parents is because the government subsidizes the two parents so both can work. How? Precisely by having the PUBLIC “SCHOOLS” (or, rather, glorified day care services) to get the brats of their backs; and through day care credits.

        Secondly, many of the parents themselves are only marginally literate or numerate.

        One can argue so are the teachers, so what’s the difference?

        1. Kids also don’t need to sit in a classroom for eight hours a day to learn. Either one parent can take a part-time job and teach their kid part of the day (3-4 hours) or both parents can teach after their workday and on the weekends.

          The problem is, you’re already being forced to pay for “free” day care at the school, so I’m not sure who would watch the kid while both parents are working.

          1. Depending on the age of the kid (start homeschooling around 6th grade or so) neither parent really needs to be at home. Give the kid some chores, video games, books, whatever and tell him the studies begin when you get home from work.

            Oh, that require the parents to actually be strict enough with their kids to keep them from being delinquents though.

    2. Or private school. My 3 year old is already learning to read.

  16. Another great reason to abolish the department of education and let individual states and communities handle the schools.

    I also don’t understand why teachers are required to have a degree in education. After all, would you rather learn biology from a biologist or from an education major?

    The education mafia must be broken!

    TEACHER WAS WILD: PROFESSOR FIRED FOR PREVIOUS CAREER IN PORN.
    http://libertarians4freedom.bl…..d-for.html

    1. Yeah, I know. It’s interesting that college professors (usually) do not have teaching degrees. They have degrees (typically) in the field they teach. Why can that not translate to primary education? I know people need to learn and develop skills to teach different age groups, but that could be a minor instead of a major… along with OJT.

      1. College is also another mafia, you actually need a PhD to teach at the college level. It’s ridiculous, why would anyone get a PhD if it wasn’t to teach in college or to get some status?

        1. Not necessarily. You can have a master’s and teach at the undergrad level, depending on the school.

    2. That sucks. A professor–who teaches adults–was fired for a previous career. Ridiculous.

      And no, I didn’t click on the link, blogwhore.

    3. In California you don’t need a masters to teach. You need a bachelor’s degree, any field, then take a fifth year of education classes.

      A friend who is in his fifth year tells me that they teach Marxism in those clases. Literally. Marxism. Not the lukewarm “socialism” that conservatives like to impune, but actual bona fide Karl Fucking Marx branded socialism. According to my friend, the rest of the class just sits there slackjawed and accepts it without question.

      1. It’s what the right has been saying for years. Tell me, why do people ridicule Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh? They’re not making up facts, they’re reporting what’s going on.

  17. I don’t know how the federal standards address special ed students, but here in Mass the MCAS standards require every child in school, including my son with Down syndrome and an IQ of about 65, to either sit for the exams or submit an “alternate assessment”; the latter takes many hours of teacher and parent time to compile. We’ve tried both options and have consistently received scores in the “warning” range. Duh. Ya think I don’t already know my child isn’t mastering the material at grade level? And the older he gets (14 now), the greater the gap between what he can do and the grade level expectations.
    He works very hard, has a great attitude, and is progressing. And I am grateful that he has good teachers and specialists in a public school that my tax dollars pay for whether he attends or not. But why waste his time, his teachers’ time, and administrator time each and every year trying to teach to the test?
    Oh yea, so he won’t be “left behind”. What a crock full of … good intentions……

    1. If they allowed exemptions from testing requirements for such situations, you can bet that schools would label every poorly-performing student as exempt from testing requirements.

      1. How about we exempt all students from mandatory standardized testing?

      2. If they’re going to insist on including everyone (I think you have a point) then 100% proficiency is not a realistic goal.

      3. Wasn’t there a South Park episode like this?

  18. Pretty sad isn’t it? Just “dumb down” the schools a little more to make the kids looks smarter. Scary dude.

    http://www.privacy-tools.cz.tc

    1. You know, anon-bot, you have a higher percentage of thoughtful, sensible posts than Chad or Tony.

  19. [Reposted from earlier]

    I read something about a study that measured both actual achievement as well the student feeling or confidence in said achievement. American students ranked number one in the latter category, confidence in achievement and twenty-something in actual achievement.

    (Can’t find the link though)

    This to me is clearly a byproduct of the self-esteem focused education system and the priority on making sure that kids “feel” good about his or her abilities and achievement.

      1. This to me is clearly a byproduct of the self-esteem focused education system and the priority on making sure that kids “feel” good about his or her abilities and achievement

        See also: The Dunning-Kruger Effect.

  20. The schools don’t dare educate students enough to see a problem with bargainers bargaining with their bought politicians.

  21. We know that the NEA didn’t come up with that motto. All of the words are spelled correctly.

    Signs made by teachers usually look like those signs the Chick-fil-A cows have: “Eat Mor Chikin”.

  22. I tried lowering my standards, but I’m still single. 🙁

  23. It’s difficult to discover any sensible comment among the 50 or so posted. It’s a pity. The misinformation, sarcasm and occasional nastiness found in these posts is discouraging.

    1. You’re right. Public schools are awesome.

      1. Right. Most are.

    2. So you post a nasty comment bemoaning the lack of useful information, which contributes exactly what to the discussion?

      1. Snell’s conclusion, the heart of the argument, is that we need are vouchers or universal tax credits, presumably to see children to “better” schools. That’s a simplistic answer because, question, where are all of these “good” schools going to be found? The answer is that most public schools are good to excellent; a few are not. Those not usually result from a student body with a high proportion of dysfunctional families–one parent families–coupled with poverty and additionally laded down with the many distractions–cell phones, facebook and twitter accounts, violence, TV superficialities that characterize life here and now.

        1. The answer is that most public schools are good to excellent; a few are not.

          That would explain the aforementioned high rate of reading failure? Those sure sound like some excellent schools.

    3. homeschooling us not sensible?

      1. For a few, assuming a parent/parents have sufficient skills. But for most, it’s not an option.

    4. First day at Hit & Run, philat?

      1. Sadly, yes….

      2. Sadly, yes….

  24. My mom is a teacher who works way too many hours. She actually tries to do her job. I told her to just give every kid a C and then whichever ones come in to complain, give them an A. It will more or less come out the same, and she can cut 40 hours a week out of her schedule.

    She didn’t like my suggestion

  25. Nice of you to state that I, as a former member of a teacher’s union would have cheered illiteracy and declining standards.

    What’s with the hate, Ronald? I really don’t get you sometimes, but your habit of painting with a planetary sized brush is exasperating.

  26. It is possible to have have high quality schools in low income communities. The teachers and school leaders have to be dedicated and enthusiastic and stand together to create a “No Excuses” culture. Often parents need to see great results before they become involved, but once they do, they understand a quality school can change the lives of their entire family.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.