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Getting Past 'No Child'

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By George F. Will
Sunday, December 9, 2007

No Child Left Behind, supposedly an antidote to the "soft bigotry of low expectations," has instead spawned lowered standards. The law will eventually be reauthorized because doubling down on losing bets is what Washington does. But because NCLB contains incentives for perverse behavior, reauthorization should include legislation empowering states to ignore it.

NCLB was passed in 2001 as an extension of the original mistake, President Lyndon Johnson's Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which became law in the year of liberals living exuberantly -- 1965, when Great Society excesses sowed the seeds of conservatism's subsequent ascendancy. ESEA was the first large Washington intrusion into education K through 12.

NCLB was supported by Republicans reluctant to vastly expand that intrusion but even more reluctant to oppose a new president's signature issue. This expansion of Washington's role in the quintessential state and local responsibility was problematic for three reasons.

First, most new ideas are dubious, so the federalization of policy increases the probability of continentwide mistakes. Second, education is susceptible to pedagogic fads and social engineering fantasies -- schools of education incubate them -- so it is prone to producing continental regrets. Third, America always is more likely to have a few wise state governments than a wise federal government.

With mandated data collections -- particularly tests of "adequate yearly progress" in reading and math -- NCLB was supposed to generate information that would enable schools to be held accountable for cognitive outputs commensurate with federal financial inputs. Bad data would make schools blush and reform.

Fourteen months ago, the president said, "The gap is closing. . . . How do we know? Because we're measuring." But about those measurements . . .

NCLB requires states to identify, by criteria they devise, "persistently dangerous schools." But what state wants that embarrassment? The Post recently reported that last year, of America's approximately 94,000 public schools, the "persistently dangerous" numbered 46. There were none among the 9,000 schools in amazingly tranquil California.

NCLB's crucial provisions concern testing to measure yearly progress toward the goal of "universal proficiency" in math and reading by 2014. This goal is America's version of Soviet grain quotas, solemnly avowed but not seriously constraining. Most states retain the low standards they had before; some have defined proficiency down.

So says "The Proficiency Illusion," a report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which studies education reform. Its findings include:

The rationale for standards-based reform was that expectations would become more rigorous and uniform, but states' proficiency tests vary "wildly" in difficulty, "with 'passing scores' ranging from the 6th percentile to the 77th." Indeed, "half of the reported improvement in reading, and 70 percent of the reported improvement in mathematics, appear idiosyncratic to the state test." In some states, tests have become more demanding; but in twice as many states, the tests in at least two grades have become easier. NCLB encourages schools to concentrate their efforts on the relatively small number of students near the state test's proficiency minimum -- the students who can most help the state meet its "adequate yearly progress" requirements.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Republican who represents western Michigan's culturally cohesive Dutch Calvinist communities, opposed NCLB from the start because he thought it would "tear apart the bond between the schools and the local communities." He believes the reauthorized version of NCLB will "gut" accountability. He is gloomily sanguine about that because he thinks accountability belongs at the local level anyway and because removing meaningful accountability removes NCLB's raison d'etre. He proposes giving states the option of submitting to Washington a "Declaration of Intent" to reclaim full responsibility for K-12 education. Such states would receive their portion of K-12 funds as block grants.

But Rep. Scott Garrett, a New Jersey Republican, warns that Washington, with its unsleeping hunger for control, steadily attaches multiple strings to block grants. He proposes to allow states to opt out from under NCLB's mandates and regulations and to give residents of those states tax credits equal to the portion of their taxes their state would have received back in federal funds for K-12 education. Garrett thinks that this could be a template for states to escape many entanglements with Washington.

NCLB intensified what Paul Posner of George Mason University calls "coercive federalism." Kenneth Wong and Gail Sunderman of Brown University and the Harvard Civil Rights Project, respectively, say NCLB "signaled the end of 'layer cake' federalism and strengthened the notion of 'marble cake' federalism, where the national and subnational governments share responsibilities in the domestic arena." Hoekstra's and Garrett's proposals would enable states to push Washington toward where it once was and where it belongs regarding K through 12 education: Out.

georgewill@washpost.com


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