Monday, June 11, 2007

Improvement, Yes. But Not Good Enough

Education is my single greatest public policy passion. Unfortunately, the consuming nature of our national security (including immigration) and foreign affairs challenges have the media and the vast majority of our politicians discussing other things. As a consequence, I have as well.

But a few articles appeared the Washington Post in the last month that have given me material to present here and I am excited to talk about it.

Education reform is one of the most exciting areas in American public policy due to the stark nature of our system's challenges and the extraordinary upside to our society if we can manage to improve the situation.

One of the few pieces of meaningful domestic progress (in any area) the Bush Administration has made, in my opinion, was the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. Honest critics have charged that this legislation is less than perfect and/or under-funded, but I think few can honestly argue that it was not a positive step forward.

In any case, it was a truly bipartisan effort with significant authors at both the White House and Senator Edward Kennedy's office among others.

The NCLB Act does the following, in the words of Senator Kennedy:

Before the act was passed, most states lacked ways to track student
progress and teacher effectiveness....Only four states had approved assessments
that tracked and reported the achievement of every group of students in their

Today, all 50 states have standards, assessments and accountability
procedures that enable us to track the achievement of every group of students.
Every school measures performance, based not on overall student population but
on progress in closing achievement gaps and getting all students to meet high
standards. Schools across the country are using assessments under the No Child
law to identify weaknesses in instruction and areas of need for their

This represents a tremendous step in the right direction for our nation, but additional immediate steps are needed. There are many that I could list and discuss here, but I will focus on a single one now that is directly related to NCLB.

Apparently, the NCLB law allows individual states to set their own student proficiency standards that are often substantially lower than the recommended national standard. Not surprisingly, this has contributed to substantially different rates of student progress across states with differing standards.

A recent Washington Post Editorial advocated a single enforceable national standard in response to this reality. I emphatically agree with this recommendation.

On the same day, the Post printed a rebuttal of their own editorial written by the current Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings. Spellings presented two arguments against a unified national standard that I would like to respond to here.

Her first argument:

First, [a single national standard] goes against more than two centuries of American educational tradition. Under the Constitution, states and localities have the primary
leadership role in public education. They design the curriculum and pay 90
percent of the bills. Neighborhood schools deserve neighborhood leadership, not
dictates from bureaucrats thousands of miles away.

If there is one area (and there are many) where "tradition" should never be invoked as a rationale for the status quo, it is in Education. I deeply respect the Constitution, but its comments on individual state's responsibilities and prerogatives for local education reflect a world in which globalization was a meaningless term and each state did in fact operate meaningfully as the dominant economic entity (from the perspective of its citizens).

I agree that neighborhood schools deserve strong local leadership, but their students also deserve the full benefit of the resources of the most powerful government in the world. The federal Department of Education, the collection of "bureaucrats" that Secretary Spellings references in her article (and apparently leads today with little confidence), has access to a wealth of talent that most states and local districts cannot hope to attract. Their expertise should benefit all students. A student (and teacher) in Mississippi or Arkansas public schools should be held to the same minimal standard as a student in Massachusetts or Maine because they are going to compete in the same global economy.

Spellings worries that national standards and a national exam would be "unprecedented and unwise". The NCLB legislation was unprecedented, yet it was backed by President Bush and has driven positive outcomes.

Unwise? The Secretary does not clearly say why this would be the case, though she does advance the idea that national standards would promote "lowest common denominator politics".

This is absurd.

States would be free to set higher standards than the national minimum, just as they do with the minimum wage. However, states with leaders or teachers unions that reject a minimum standard sufficient for a global economy would be held accountable and their students would not have to pay the price of an insufficient education.

Spellings concludes with the following remark: "Rather than top-down mandates, we are encouraging a race to the top."

With all due respect and credit for the genuine progress achieved so far, it is hard to see how you can inspire a true race to the top without drawing a finish line.


Tim said...

Jared, I was very happy to see that you blogged about education. Education reform is also one of the most important issues to me.

1. You said, "Unfortunately, the consuming nature of our national security (including immigration) and foreign affairs challenges have the media and the vast majority of our politicians discussing other things." I can understand why national security/foreign policy overshadows domestic policy right now. However, what I don't quite understand is why education isn't at least a top domestic issue.

It seems healthcare is pretty much the only domestic issue being discussed (other than the obligatory talk about taxes/economy.) Why? Our healthcare system certainly needs serious fixing, but why does it need to overshadow education? Is it because, to put it in a trite way, "kids don't vote"? Politicians are addressing the immediate concerns of senior citizens and baby boomers? There seems to be imminent "tipping points" for global warming, oil dependence, and healthcare, but I don't see one for education anywhere in sight.

2. It's my humble opinion that a national test will be used eventually. It's my theory that the only way Bush could pass NCLB was to pander to his right-wing constituents by leaving testing authority to the states. The concept of expanding the Department of Education and federally mandated testing was already pushing the boundaries of what his base could stomach. This NCLB is just an interim phase of what it will ultimately become.

Unknown said...

A member of Bush's Cabinet speaks and acts in opposition to the goals that in principle constitute her very job? Say it ain't so!

I hope that Tim is correct in predicting that NCLB is just the start. Unto itself, it doesn't stir in me the urge to do any somersaults. It's a step forward, but it's only a step. Hopefully, Congress will have enough vision to take things to the next level; I worry that they have put a check mark next to "education" and called it a day.

As for whether education deserves more of the policy limelight, I absolutely believe that it does, but I don't know if it should be ahead of, or even equal to, health care on the list of priorities. The flaws in the current system don't just affect the aging and the old; they're also a major problem for many low-income and/or single-parent families with children and for middle-class families with bad strokes of luck, employment-wise or health-wise. Education is really, really important--don't get me wrong--but it's not as important as the public health. I can't think of anything that is.

Tim said...

Point taken about healthcare affecting children and families, but, very honestly, I'm not focused on education because of the children.

Education is more than "what about the children!" or even being competitive in the global economy. At its core, the problem of education is the problem of poverty and institutional racism (which Bush calls soft bigotry).

Those are the two root causes of our domestic ills, one of which is healthcare (which is complicated by private insurers, Medicare, etc.) Until the public and political candidates address root causes head-on, we're just playing political musical chairs.