Why can't Uncle Sam learn?

By George F. Will
Thursday, March 18, 2010; A19

Doubling down on dubious bets is characteristic of compulsive gamblers and federal education policy. The nation was essentially without such policy for grades K through 12, and better off for that, until 1965. In that year of liberals living exuberantly, they produced the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Now yet another president has announced yet another plan to fix education. His aspiration has a discouraging pedigree.

In 1983, three years after Jimmy Carter paid his debt to teachers unions by creating the Education Department, a national commission declared America "a nation at risk": "If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." So in 1984, Ronald Reagan decreed improvements.

They did not materialize, so in 1994 Congress decreed that by 2000 the high school graduation rate would be "at least" 90 percent and students would be "first in the world in mathematics and science achievement." Even inflated by "social promotions," the graduation rate in 2000 was about 75 percent (it peaked at 77.1 percent in 1969), and among 38 nations surveyed, Americans ranked 19th in mathematics, just below Latvians, and 18th in science, just below Bulgarians.

So, eschewing "the soft bigotry of low expectations," in 2001 President George W. Bush undertook the loopy idealism of preposterous expectations. No Child Left Behind decreed that by 2014 there will be universal -- yes, 100 percent -- "proficiency" in reading and math. That will happen if enough states do what many have done -- define proficiency down. NCLB gives states an incentive to report chimerical progress, so, unsurprisingly, state tests almost always indicate much more progress than does the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal test.

President Obama understands that NCLB has perverse incentives. If we must continue the mistake of increasing federal supervision of primary and secondary education, Washington should at least reverse what NCLB does. Washington should set national standards and measurements and leave states free to choose how to meet them.

Obama wisely proposes broadening the focus beyond reading and math, a constructed emphasis that encourages neglect of science and history. NCLB has deepened the historical amnesia that conservatives deplore, but conservatives should know that national standards for public education will inevitably reflect the public education culture that is a large part of the problem. To imagine the soggy souffle of political correctness that national history standards would be, remember the offensive standards proposed in the mid-1990s and resoundingly rejected by Congress.

Obama would sensibly relax NCLB's severe pass-fail judgments on schools, instead measuring the academic growth of children who, because of family background, start school far behind. And he admirably proposes making more severe the consequences of a school's substantial and protracted failure to produce student progress: A school might have to replace at least half its staff, or even be closed.

But how does one fulfill -- or know when one has fulfilled -- Obama's goal of "college and career readiness" for every child by 2020? That gauzy goal resembles the 1994 goal that by 2000 (when, Congress dreamily decreed, every school "will be free of drugs and violence") every child would start school "ready to learn." Is "college and career readiness" one goal or two? Should everybody go to college? Is a college degree equivalent to career -- any career? -- readiness?

If such readiness is not measurable, this is another airy puff of legislative cotton candy, similar to NCLB's guarantee that every teacher will be "highly qualified." Qualification measured how? Probably by relying on the redundantly refuted theory that traditional credentialing -- e.g., a degree from an education school -- guarantees competence.

NCLB's emphasis on measuring students' expanding knowledge has improved education policy that until recently was exclusively focused, as the public education lobby preferred, on monetary inputs rather than cognitive outputs. From the time the baby boom generation began going through the school system like a pig through a python, policy, until NCLB, assumed that cognitive outputs varied positively with financial inputs.

Abundant evidence demonstrates that money is not an Archimedean lever for moving the world of education. Inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending tripled over four decades; pupil-teacher ratios were substantially reduced as the number of teachers increased 61 percent while enrollments rose about 10 percent. Yet test scores stagnated or declined.

So, what will government do now to reverse the decline that has pretty much coincided with federal intervention since 1965? Double down.


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