Lessons From Abroad

School choice only helps education

Illinois schools got bad news recently: About 30 percent more failed under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) this year than last. But to fix these schools, the act needs to be fixed first.

The act’s objective is to ensure basic reading and math competency in every child. But it is failing even in this modest task because it is applying a totally backward strategy: Instead of promoting national standards and parental accountability, as is the case in many countries, including India, it is doing the reverse: fostering local standards and federal accountability. This has consigned kids to a low quality education – while disempowering schools and teachers: the very opposite of what it set out to do.

Since 2002, the act has required the 90 percent or so school districts nation-wide that receive federal Title 1 money for at-risk kids to test third- to eighth-graders in reading and math. The schools are also required to report their results broken down by income, ethnicity, disability status and other categories.

The act mandates what proficiency gains schools must post every year to receive a passing grade – or face penalties. For instance, only those Illinois schools passed this year that increased their proficiency rate both overall and in every subgroup to 55 percent from 47.5 percent last year. By 2014, all kids in all subgroups have to be proficient for their schools to be anointed by Uncle Sam. Schools that fail a few years in a row can lose their federal funding. This is nothing to sneer at given that in Illinois this funding constitutes over 10 percent of the $20 billion-plus education budget.

But the huge loophole in the act is that it allows states to define what constitutes “proficiency.” This has triggered a wholesale “dumbing down” of standards. The Chicago Tribune reported that 572 more Illinois schools would have failed this year if the state had not tinkered with its math and reading exams. This means that many Illinois kids – as those elsewhere — are still stuck in failing schools, but now don’t even know it. What’s more, given that not all states have lowered their standards equally, it has become far more difficult to tell how kids in one state stack up against another – much less against other countries. This is exactly contrary to trends elsewhere in the world.

In India, for instance, every kid in every school must take a national board exam after the 10th and 12th grades (before that, schools administer their own annual exams at the end of each grade). The “boards” are far from perfect. But they ensure basic learning and allow apples-to-apples comparisons across schools. For example, students who score 75 percent on a math exam can be safely assumed to have the same proficiency level regardless of whether they went to a big or small, city or rural, school.

But, unlike in the United States, the Indian government does not penalize schools that don’t meet its expectations. Parents do. India has a robust private K-12 market that almost all middle-class and above families use. James Tooley, an education professor in England, found that 75 percent of children even in some urban slums attend private schools. The upshot is that parents can yank kids out of substandard schools that don’t prepare them adequately for the “boards” and enroll them in ones that do. The exams simply put crucial information in their hands to make comparisons.

This might seem counter-intuitive to the American teaching establishment given its legendary hostility to school choice, but parental accountability is actually empowering for teachers as well: Because parents in India pick their own school, they are far less prone to blame teachers when their children under-perform — and far more to prod their kids to take responsibility. Even when a few disgruntled parents do pull their kids, they don’t threaten the financial health of the whole institution. This is in stark contrast to NCLB under which a few failing kids could jeopardize federal funding for the entire school.

The NCLB is up for renewal this year. Lawmakers serious about its promise of leaving no child behind ought to look for reforms that give parents two things: A yardstick by which to measure school performance and school choice. There are many candidates for a national exam that are superior to India’s “boards” which, thanks to the ossified federal bureaucracy that administers it, are based on an outdated pedagogy. America’s private testing industry has produced stellar high school exams such as the ACT that give a fairly accurate measure of student knowledge. These can easily be adapted to lower grades.

Meanwhile, one of the big obstacles preventing many states from embracing school choice are federal regulations that bar federal money from flowing to schools that don’t meet its gazillion regulations concerning teacher training, lunch programs and so on. Rolling back these regulations should be top on the list of NCLB reforms.

None of this will be easy. But legislators can’t shirk this assignment if they want American students to compete with their global peers.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets. The archive of her latest work can be found here at