Perspectives in Education- Part 4- Attempts at Reform

Ask any liberal why the federal government needs to be involved in K-12 education and they will usually give an answer that goes something like this: We can all concede that education is very important towards life outcomes and society in general. As a country, we are falling behind our foreign counterparts in science and math and other areas. There are over 14,000 school districts in the country. Certainly, we need some standards that are national in scope otherwise we would have 14,000 different groups of standards. How can we improve academic output if we have 14,000 decision-makers? Well…actually not really. We may potentially have, at most assuming the federal government got out of K-12 education, fifty (as in the number of states) different sets of standards. And incidentally, at one time we DID have that and things seemed to work rather well except with respect to certain segments of society, ostensibly the reason the federal government got into the business of educating children in the 1960s in the first place. The first thing one needs to do is get over the pretenses here and admit that federal control over K-12 education is nothing but another example of the liberal tendency towards central planning, control, and the “we know best” technocratic/bureaucratic welfare state.

In a lot of ways, the liberals have it half-ass backwards. Their view of reform is a top-down method where the federal government knows best. Conversely, conservatives believe that reform should come from the bottom up with the federal government basically staying out of the way in most areas. Bush’s No Child Left Behind was a well-meaning program that had serious flaws. I do not think that even the staunchest of staunch conservatives wants any child to be “left behind.” But, more on this a little later.

At the end of the day, there are basically five paradigms for addressing educational reform on a national basis. The first is what I call the Johnson/Carter paradigm after Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter. There is some overlap between between the differing methods along the way. Of course, it was Johnson who first interjected the federal government into K-12 education with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The main part was Title I which granted subsidies to urban and rural schools where children lived in poverty in order to address the inverse relationship between poverty and academic achievement. This is the classic “throw more money at the problem” reaction to educational reform. Of course, Carter in 1976 ran on a platform that advocated a greater federal financial role in funding K-12 education and creation of a Department of Education. He got both.

Unfortunately with the increased monetary commitment came more regulation and bureaucracy. By 1980, the law had become so convoluted that its original alleged purpose was not being served. All that did not matter since more money was flowing into local districts from Washington DC. But a funny thing happened along the way. Statistical studies indicated that the gap between low-income students and middle and affluent students was not narrowing. Despite these enormous federal expenditures, even today your average high school senior performs no better than they did on standardized tests in 1969.

The second paradigm is what I call the Reagan paradigm. One of the problems with previous Title I reforms was the concept of pull-outs. This allowed the eligible students to be separated from ineligible students so that the appropriated funds would reach their intended target. However, this created a disconnect with what was being taught in the classroom. A 1978 “improvement” adopted the “school wide” approach where Title I funds could be used not for individual students but on a school-wide basis to enhance the the overall educational environment. Reagan passed the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act. This was an effort to basically deregulate the many stipulations on Title I spending to give greater leeway to state and local jurisdictions in how those funds could be used. However, the Reagan reforms certainly did not cut back on spending. Despite the vision of Reagan as a great budget cutter, by the time he left office the federal government was spending considerably more on Title I grants than when he took office. Most importantly, student achievement scores on many metrics showed no improvements either. They didn’t make them worse, but they didn’t improve either. Thus, the deregulation paradigm did little to address this problem. That is perhaps why through the Bush I and Clinton administrations there was an increased cry for strengthening standards and holding schools accountable. Most reforms in this area were just words. By the time Clinton left office, Title I spending was twice that which occurred in 1980. Throw in state and local funding, one sees year-to-year increases from 1980 to 2000 again with no discernible improvements in academic achievement. Not only were we throwing money after the problem, but we were covering it up through basically feel-good legislation, albeit Reaganesque “feel good” legislation.

Which brings us to the third attempt, or the Bush II paradigm best exemplified in No Child Left Behind (NCLB). To say that NCLB was a major revamping of federal educational policy would be an understatement. The law not only required accountability from schools in general that received Title I funds, but now also teachers and students were to be held accountable. States were required to institute assessment regimens and make the results known to parents- the so-called school report cards. Punitive measures against schools that failed to show improvements within certain time frames were introduced. As a result, more schools took corrective action of some kind under NCLB than any other attempt at reform previous to 2003.

In effect, NCLB re-instituted educational regulation with a vengeance. One thing overlooked in the debate over NCLB is that it actually did have some positive effects on student academic achievement. Maybe that improvement was not to the degree everyone liked or quick enough, but there were improvements nevertheless and certainly more than seen under the previous two paradigms which showed either a backward slide or stagnation. Of course, on an international comparative basis, the United States was still falling behind because the country had basically wasted 37 years of “educational reform.” But, even NCLB had its drawbacks.

Since the law was based on accountability above all else, the best way to gauge that on a mass scale was through the use of standardized tests. This led many a teacher to essentially “teach to the test.” I have seen and heard teachers repeatedly do this. A student will ask a question and the teacher will give a perfunctory explanation followed by the standard, “You really don’t have to worry too much about that; its not on the test.” A whole curriculum arose around THE TEST with textbooks published and sold that incorporated questions from previous tests as practice. Some elementary school classes actually have textbooks on test-taking strategies coated in great educational mumbo-jumbo words. Because NCLB emphasized math and literacy skills, other subjects like history and science were put on the back burner, relegated to 20-minute blocks in elementary school where a student usually reads from a book. Granted, in the school where I work, they handle this differently by incorporating social studies into literacy programs. In this way, they are studying American history while also improving their reading, writing and other skills. Just this past year, they started to demand that the 6th through 8th grade social studies teachers require written reports from students rather than rote tests and that things like grammar, punctuation and correct sentence construction be part of the grade. The science curriculum was revamped to be coordinated with math instruction so that students can see how the abstract things learned in math were applied in science. But, this school is the exception to the rule (and, incidentally, the highest performing school in the district).

Because Bush was moving towards more local control and because they were dependent on Title I funding, another bad effect was some states and districts “dumbing down” the standards. Although they were supposed to be strengthened under NCLB, the opposite happened in reality and practice under the guise of “meeting the requirements.” And another unfortunate side effect of NCLB was the regulatory paperwork required to justify the receipt of money. Schools had to hire additional support staff to ensure compliance with the law and its reporting requirements so that more money was going to administration and not making its way into the classroom. Still, at the end of the day, although many conservatives today will argue against NCLB on philosophical grounds, the gains made under it cannot be ignored. Although by no means a success, Bush was onto something.

Enter the fourth method- the Obama paradigm, or the Race to the Top (RTTT) program. This was an outgrowth of the Obama stimulus plan. This program has the veneer of competition, but it is really nothing more than the most coercive federal intrusion into education of any model. There is a little bit of everything for everyone. States are awarded points for enacting performance-based standards, or allowing more charter schools, building database systems, or most ominously, adopting the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) which will be discussed in another entry in this series. In the first round, the federal government released $600 million in grants. In the second round, they released $3.275 BILLION dollars in grants. The drawback is that the point system is based not on what states ARE doing, but on what states PROMISE to do in order to receive the points and, thus, grants. As everyone knows, a promise made is easier than a promise kept. By relying on tests to gauge student performance, Obama looks as if he standing up to the teacher unions.

Several studies from the left and the right have been critical of RTTT. Sometimes those criticisms focus on transparency in awarding of points. Delaware and Tennessee, the two original recipients, may have been chosen because they had already enacted reforms that were working. Instead of an incentive towards reform, it was an incentive for reforms enacted absent RTTT thus making the program “look successful.” Civil rights organizations got on the race bandwagon and said the system was antiquated and would reverse the improvements they fought for in 1965. Naturally, they leave out the fact that those “improvements” actually widened the achievement gap between minorities and whites. Most importantly, in exchange for federal dollars, states were required to submit to the will of the federal government when it came to grade-by-grade standards and curriculum. This may have been a boom for the educational publishing industry, but it also mandates a one-size-fits-all agenda on the schools and states. Thus, all the other supposed competitive features are window-dressing on the program. But hey- Obama can claim he incorporated some conservative ideas into the mix. Fortunately, people like Bob McDonnell and Rick Perry got it right by refusing their state’s participation. Essentially, it is a deal with the devil.

Which brings me to the fifth method which I call the Speak the Truth Paradigm. The United States does a few things good and one of the best things they do is collect data. In fact, under President ANDREW (not Lyndon) Johnson, we actually had a Department of Education. Unlike today’s behemoth, it was tasked with collecting educational data and statistics for dissemination to states so that they can make informed policy decisions in the area of education. Besides involvement in higher education, that should be an ancillary role of today’s Department of Education. While it is true that practically every think tank in existence could do the same, they usually have a political agenda. Not that the federal government doesn’t or wouldn’t, but there needs to be a central clearinghouse for the data independent of political pressures.

And what would be done with this information and data? That brings up the “speak the truth” aspect of the plan. They would simply put the statistics and data out there in the public sphere so that parents- the ultimate educational consumers- and taxpayers and state and local policy makers- not federal ones- can make the choices for improvements specific to their needs and wants, not dictated by the federal government. Furthermore, under this paradigm and armed with increased knowledge of what their child is learning in school, how that school is doing and how that teacher is doing and, equally important, what the school is doing to overcome the negatives, parents then should be afforded choice in schooling options. If a urban school, for example, is performing badly, but your particular child is performing well there, then all the more power to them. But, if they are not learning and the school is an overall low performer, what can be a bigger disservice than denying that student and their parent a choice in education? What can be more racist than keeping a smart minority child in a low-performing school? This is something today’s civil rights leaders need to embrace and advocate.

The answer to America’s educational woes lies in parental choice based on informed decision-making. Just the mere concept increases parental involvement in their child’s educational outcome, the most important factor proven to improve academic performance more consistently than any other factor. It is such an established fact that even hard core liberals concede it now. It is why private schools, on balance, churn out a better product than public schools. I argue that it is more racist to deny a minority a choice in education and where they receive that education than any previous discriminatory actions. By denying children of low-income families- regardless of their race or ethnicity or whatever- the choice that the more affluent take for granted as a sort of birthright is the ultimate act of bigotry and racism.

Next: Teacher unions and educational reform

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