Friday, July 20, 2012

The Failure of No Child Left Behind Does Not Justify Greater Federal Intervention

David Gerson states the obvious - that the Obama Administration is backing away from the legislative failure known as "No Child Left Behind". While observing that pretty much everybody has concluded that the law turned out to be a misguided failure, for reasons the law's critics were citing pretty much from day one, it's not clear if Gerson himself acknowledges how poorly conceived the law was. How it doomed good schools to be branded as failures while emphasizing standardized tests (as Gerson himself puts it, an "obsessive focus on test results"), and redirecting incredible amounts of money from education into test prep and payments to test providers.
Right and left — Republican governors and teachers unions — have found rare ideological agreement on educational federalism.

The only problem: Education is a massive failure of federalism.
By a "failure of federalism", does Gerson mean that state and local governments weren't up to the task of educating children? Is he arguing that any time a president, or a president's speech writer, identifies an issue in which states are faltering he should step in with sweeping legislation, driven largely by assumption and ideology, to impose standards and controls over what had previously been a state issue?

Gerson argues,
By the second half of the 20th century, America’s public schools were betraying many of the students in their charge, including the overwhelming majority of poor and minority students.
How many is "many"? Gerson cannot seem to make up his mind about whether this was a broad-based crisis requiring across-the-board federal intervention, or if this was a problem largely isolated to inner cities and poverty-stricken areas, in which case broad-based federal intervention would be both unnecessarily intrusive and unnecessarily expensive. Gerson focuses on race and poverty, suggesting that the only case he sees is the former, which should mean that he would oppose a NCLB-type law. He was the one who invoked federalism - if the federal government can achieve its goals with the use of a tack hammer, why employ a sledgehammer?

Gerson shares this gem:
It is true that highly centralized governmental systems can be arrogant and mediocre. Public education demonstrates that a highly decentralized governmental system can also be arrogant and mediocre, particularly when parents are denied objective information about educational outcomes.
So, yes, government can be arrogant and mediocre at all levels. Thanks for sharing. The historic thought with education, though, is that it was a local government issue, with local school boards overseeing local schools, responding to local needs and concerns. Some fail? That's inevitable. But why does Gerson believe that success is more likely following federal intervention, or that involvement in public school policy is an appropriate exercise of federal power?

Gerson whines that people didn't make enough of an effort to improve or refine the law, which has now been in effect for more than a decade. One wonders why Gerson has not taken a similar stance in relation to, say, any major Obama Administration initiative. "Don't complain that it's misguided or oversteps the proper role of the federal government, work to fix it!" He sneers that teachers who suggest that the law's "obsessive focus" on standardized testing takes the joy out of teaching are in fact motivated by a desire to avoid accountability. His preferred solution? Less federalism, more direct federal control - which does seem to be consistent with his tenure with the Bush Administration. Never admit a mistake and, when a policy appears to be failing, double down.
Why is NCLB so unpopular? Because it exposes the failure of adults in the lives of children. And the bipartisan response of many governors, educators and legislators — alarmingly, predictably — is to excuse the adults.
Actually, NCLB is unpopular because it is a poorly conceived law that has wasted an incredible amount of money and didn't work. If it had been modified to the point that it might have "worked" it would be unrecognizable. To say that the conditions imposed by the Obama Administration are an improvement over NCLB would be to damn them with faint praise, but Congress hasn't acted, Congress won't act, so there you go.

As Yong Zhao sarcastically notes, Gerson wants us to follow the lead of the wrong nation (and the Common Core Standards initiative is largely "more of the same"):
America has almost caught up with China, and actually in some areas surpassed it. Thanks to No Child Left Behind, America can now claim to have even more frequent high stakes standardized tests than China. It can also be proud to be more serious than China about the test results because it uses test scores to break up schools, fire school leaders, and publicly humiliate teachers, while China does not have the guts to do any of that. China only gives those schools and teachers with high test scoring students some extra money. America has also successfully reduced time on nonsense school activities such as music, arts, sports, science, social studies, lunch time, and field trips, something it has wanted to do since the 1950s when surpassing the former Soviet Union was the aspiration. And the silly Chinese are working hard to push those nonsense activities into schools.
Perhaps Gerson can reflect on the past decade of experience and share some ideas for how NCLB might be improved or, better yet, replaced with something that doesn't confuse success on standardized tests with quality education. I'll grant, his chosen approach is easier - pretend that parents and communities aren't part of the equation, treat teachers with disdain, and stick with a failed policy because if you do it for longer, or do it harder, it might magically start working.

Congress has a playground right in front of it, through which it can demonstrate how federal intervention, programs and initiatives can turn around a school district and leave no child behind, the D.C. Public Schools. Here's a wild idea, how about asking Congress to lead by example, demonstrating in D.C. that its ideas and initiatives can work, then asking states to sign on to proven techniques for improving troubled schools? If D.C. won't agree to participate, pick an inner city, any inner city - you'll find one that's willing to take a ton of federal money to reinvent itself.

That seems more sensible than doubling down on failure, doesn't it? Better than finger-pointing, complaining that a bad law would work if somebody else fixed it? In Gerson's eyes, when are any of the self-described "adults" of the Bush Administration to be held responsible for their actions and inaction?


  1. Here's a wild idea, how about asking Congress to lead by example, demonstrating in D.C. that its ideas and initiatives can work, then asking states to sign on to proven techniques for improving troubled schools?

    Hmmmm . . . states (and DC) as laboratories. My God, you are starting to sound like a Federalist. ; )


    1. The federalist concept of states as laboratories has tended to work better in theory than in practice but....

      1. We've been experimenting with education reforms for many decades and about once a decade implement a major new initiative. Each has failed, most recently NCLB. If you want to implement reforms you should look at what works and test, not impose an ideologically-driven, assumption-based extraordinarily expensive experiment on the entire nation only to find out that... surprise, it's no better than the last assumption-based extraordinarily expensive experiment.

      2. Sometimes the reasons we have trouble with an institution, public or private, are actually difficult and don't lend themselves to grand, one-size-fits-all solutions. Initiatives like NCLB did not say, "Let's find out where there is a need and direct our efforts and resources at the need." They set nationwide standards that must be met without regard to need, and can actually worsen the situation in some (or many) ways in areas that didn't need the "reform". On top of that, you can end up spending much or most of the money that could be directed based on need at districts that don't have the need.

      3. If you're going to make evidence-based reforms (not that politicians are inclined to do so), you need evidence. If everybody does exactly the same thing, you won't have evidence of what does or does not work - you will simply have evidence of whether or not the uniform practice works - or, in the case of major top-driven school reforms, that it once again doesn't work.

      4. High-stakes testing not only raises questions about whether you're testing the correct subjects and whether the tests accurately measure performance and improvement within a given subject, but implicate possibilities of corruption and cheating. The assumption is that "fill the dot"-type, multiple choice standardized tests are "close enough", but that seems to be because we don't want to spend the time, money or effort to devise or score better measures of performance.

      I don't want to speak too broadly when I say "doesn't work" - a major reform is apt to bring about positive changes in some areas, perhaps counterbalanced by negative effects in other areas. But when you look at the gradual improvement of schools over time it's difficult to find evidence to support attributing that gradual overall gain to any given reform in the educational model, even if you look only at correlation.

      If the primary goal is to fix "failing" schools in "failing" districts, why not pour the money and reform efforts into those schools and districts and, to the extent that you find something that works, bring the elements that work to the rest of the nation. Odds are other districts will voluntarily adopt some or all of the measures you identify that actually improve student performance. And if your effort is a repeat of history - nothing really changes - you've spent a lot less money finding that out.