Education Lessons Are Lost on Obama

Not every failure occurs in the classroom

I can't pinpoint the moment when the Obama administration went wrong on the subject of education. But I can pinpoint the moment when it demonstrated that it can't be taken seriously.

It happened on Monday, March 15, when Education Secretary Arne Duncan was expounding to reporters about revising the No Child Left Behind law. The new policy, he asserted, "is going to revolutionize education in our country."

No, it's not. We have been at the task of education for a long time, and one thing we have learned is that you cannot revolutionize it. The American system of schooling is vast, complicated, self-protective, slow to change, and even slower to improve.

On these points, No Child Left Behind leaves no doubt. It was inaugurated with grand promises eight years ago. "As of this hour, America's schools will be on a new path of reform, and a new path of results," exulted President George W. Bush upon signing it.

For the first time, the federal government demanded that states create and enforce standards, hold educators accountable, and make prescribed changes. It seemed to hold great potential.

But the potential has gone unfulfilled. In the first five years, there were small gains in reading proficiency among 4th-graders, but the gains were larger in the five years before that. Likewise with math.

Among 8th-graders, there was no change in reading performance. Math scores rose a little, but less rapidly than they had been rising. Nor have minority students improved more than before.

High school students also have nothing to brag about. A 2008 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that among 17-year-olds, performance in math and reading is worse now than it was in the 1990s and no better than in 1973.

If you didn't know NCLB had become law in 2002, you would not guess it from looking at the trends in student performance. We were mediocre then, and we're mediocre now.

Hoover Institution scholar John Chubb, in his book Learning from No Child Left Behind, laments that "only a third of American young people are demonstrating mastery of the knowledge and skills that education experts believe appropriate for their respective grade levels." In some countries, two-thirds of kids meet that standard.

The common complaint among liberal critics is that Washington imposed new rules without supplying the needed funds. But between 2001 and 2008, federal education spending jumped by 72 percent.

In short, we launched an unprecedented and expensive effort to improve schools and help students—and it didn't work.

One problem is that the states that were serious about raising performance didn't need the law, and those that were not serious were able to evade or frustrate it. Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, has explained, "While it's hard to force recalcitrant states and districts to do things they don't want to do, it's impossible to force them to do those things well."

Nor is it clear it would help if they did. Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor who was an education official under the first President Bush and a former NCLB enthusiast, finds no evidence that the remedies that failing schools must adopt actually work in practice.

As she notes in her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, few parents have taken advantage of the opportunity provided under NCLB to escape bad schools. Few students have leapt at the chance to get free after-school tutoring. Few failing schools have been able to turn around.

Obama's "Race to the Top" plan is a new approach, offering competitive grants to states that adopt high standards, improve lousy schools, and reward good teachers. It's a fresh, promising idea in a field where fresh, promising ideas go to die.

Like NCLB, the new policy rests on the assumption that the federal government not only knows how to raise student performance but has the tools to induce states and local school districts to make the changes required to help the students in need. But experience indicates all those premises are wrong.

Our leaders have a lot of evidence that a bigger federal role will not produce the desired results, and yet they persist in believing that it will. Not every education failure occurs in a classroom.

This column previously appeared at Reason.com.

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