I’ve been involved in education ever since at age 13 I taught my younger brother to read. (Seriously, anyone can use this super-effective phonics program.) But lately it’s got me bored out of my skull. Nicholas Kristof is even picking up the feeling, saying “I wonder if the education reform movement hasn’t peaked,” although his predictable prescription is expanding our incapable education management system to younger kids.
All the ideas our management class considers viable are just variations on the same old statist theme. That’s the very reason they’re so boring. It’s a choice between different shades of grey. More testing versus less testing, instead of examining how useful and controlling our current tests are, and what might be better that doesn’t return schools to the days no one knew what all that tax money accomplished. Central planning at the federal level versus federally directed central planning leveraged through states versus state-directed central planning (see state departments of education and textbook approval committees). Absurd spending levels versus merely wasteful spending levels.
Giving teachers a permanent lifetime job if they make it through two years versus using low-level tests on subjects only a few teachers teach to determine which of all teachers will probably stay or go, after letting them muddle through for at least ten or 12 years. Even Republicans’ new bandwagon, “school choice,” only gets through state legislatures if it is limited to something like 0.002 percent of the state’s K-12 population (looking at you, Texas), and then larded with so many statist restrictions that it’s kind of a wonder anyone would do all that work to make a few more private schools more like the public schools they’re supposed to provide an alternative to.
The No Child Left Behind Debate Is No Better
B-O-R-I-N-G. I mean, really, it’s like deciding whether you want to die by suffocation or drowning. It’s no better for the current “hot debate” over whether Congress might move on a bill to tweak No Child Left Behind eight years after this major federal education law was scheduled for an update.
There are two bills in the current session of Congress to update NCLB, one in each house. Mostly, they’re NCLB lite. They do most of the things NCLB does, while eliminating some provisions everyone hates, such as federal takeovers of schools, “adequate yearly progress,” mandates of 100 percent student proficiency, federal hoop-jumping for teachers, and random wasteful grant programs. Woo fricken hoo.
Nobody except the impotent technocrat class is going to get super-excited that where we had 70 pots of money for the feds to bribe states into doing things both suck at managing, now we have 10. Nobody is excited that where we had the feds making every kid take lame tests that ruin curriculum and using them to judge schools, now we’d have the feds making every kid take lame tests that ruin curriculum and “allowing” states to decide how they want to use these tests to judge schools—while handing out helpful “guidelines” that basically consist of the old federal law. That’s not innovative, it’s not progress, and it’s nothing Republicans can sell voters, or even their base. It’s basically water-treading.
So the folks all excited about the unanimous passage of the Senate NCLB reauthorization from committee last week can just thank Sens. Lamar Alexander, Tim Scott, and Rand Paul for stamping “Republican” on the next generation of bipartisan, fed-led education mediocrity. About the best anyone can say for it is what Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute did on a recent call with conservative writers: At least if this bill passes we probably won’t have a possible President Hillary Clinton unilaterally ruling American education policy like Barack Obama has through NCLB’s current “waivers” provision, which reads nothing like Obama has used it.
Unless Hillary decides she loves Obama’s practice of using the law “a little more like guidelines.” In which case, we’re all screwed no matter what any law says, and Republicans are playing the previous half-century’s ball game again.
Revive The Good Ideas Already
Given the deteriorating state of public education in this country, these ideas are nowhere near good enough. “Testing” and its supposed synonym, “accountability,” are just not getting the job done, and we’ve been trying this brand of government monopoly for nearly three decades now. Conservatives need new ideas—or, rather, to stop mucking about in bureaucracy maintenance and finally recover some old ideas about educating children that have excellent track records. Effective, timeless principles like individual liberty and subsidiarity can have new applications today. Here are a few ideas some bold lawmakers need to unleash instead of reverting to progressive policy ruts, like the leaders of both parties in Congress.
1. Explicit Test Opt Outs for Kids
Perhaps the number-one exciting thing in education right now is the unprecedented wave of parents defying federal testing mandates to sign their kids out of these tests this spring. It’s a protest measure against both the Common Core, as these tests are the first iteration of its new annual nationwide tests, and against the mechanisms of power that sprung it on the people unannounced. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of kids refusing these tests this spring, whereas before Common Core trial testing runs last year perhaps a few hundred have ever done so in any given year. In New York alone, estimates of the number of test refusals put the number at 300,000 kids and counting—nearly a third of all kids tested in that state.
At its heart, the opt-out wave is about individualism versus collectivism. As hundreds of thousands of kids refuse tests, many local school officials have told families that they’re not allowed to customize a public-school education by refusing bits of it this way. Enrolling in public schools is a package deal, they say. As one Ohio administrator told a parent, if you don’t like the tests, homeschool. Many others have forced these young conscientious objectors to “sit and stare” at the testing screen all day, doing nothing, while their classmates dutifully fill out the computerized bubbles. Others have threatened parents with holding their kids back a grade if they don’t take the tests.
Enough. Either parents run education, or the collective does. State and national lawmakers who support parents and individual rights should give everyone the explicit power to accept or reject these tests, and any other component of public schools they find objectionable. A local school district monopoly might be closer to people than a state or federal education monopoly, but it’s still a monopoly, and it’s still coercive. Bust that trust.
2. Opt-Out for States
A corollary to the above is allowing states to tell the feds “Thanks, but no thanks” to the feds’ use of state tax dollars to bribe states into activities those same state taxpayers may not support. I’m talking the A-PLUS amendment, which should be a make-or-break component for any NCLB reauthorization. The provision would allow states to get their education dollars back as a block grant while opting out of federal strings, as long as they promise to adhere to civil-rights laws and improve education for poor kids. The argument for this is simple, and data-driven: Federal mandates have done nothing to improve education for the past sixty years, even for poor and minority kids. Their central function has been impoverishing states and shackling teachers to pad bureaucrats’ butts.
As Heritage’s Lindsey Burke writes of the House bill that recently tanked (but may be yet revived in Congress this session): “Unlike the 10-page APLUS policy, the 620 pages of NCLB rewrite will maintain the ever-growing tentacles of the federal government in local school policy, at a time when conservatives have an opportunity to completely change course.”
3. Unleash Testing Experimentation
Our nation and kids are losing out on a lot of growth opportunities because of that federal requirement that all students be tested every year on math and reading (and every few grades in science, for a total of 17 mandatory federal tests each year). In the 14 years since NCLB imposed this mandate, we’ve learned a lot about testing, and if the feds would just back off the states could try some of the emerging new ways to show the public how kids are doing with much less individual coercion, curriculum distortion, and loss of class time.
The two major possibilities in this sector right now are called sampling and gradespan testing. Sampling simply means mimicking the well-respected, voluntary National Assessment of Educational Progress by testing each year not every single child, but a random, representative sampling of children. Gradespan testing is also a feature of NAEP, and it means testing kids at certain benchmark grades, such as fourth, eighth, and twelfth, instead of in every grade. These would greatly reduce testing costs, curricular influence, and coercion while still providing basic information to the public about what proportion of kids of various races and income levels are reading at grade level. Several New Hampshire districts have just begun a similar experiment wherein their students must only take state tests once each in elementary, middle, and high school (which did but should not require explicit federal approval).
‘With this hybrid model, the occasional state testing becomes more of an ‘audit, which is a really appropriate role of a state assessment system,’ says Scott Marion, associate director of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment,” according to the Christian Science Monitor.
Another emerging possibility is of allowing schools to choose from a variety of different tests and employ a few statistics gurus each year to compare the results using mathematical jujitsu. We really can approximate how Suzy Jones compares to David Smith in math ability even if the two have taken different tests. People who say otherwise are uninformed or lying. Florida has done this for decades with the private schools in its large, popular school-choice program. This would end the federal curriculum monopoly that has most American children learning the same prepackaged, test-prep garbage, and allow schools to once again enrich curriculum, which is perhaps the number one element in increasing learning.
4. Support Supply-Side Education
The AEI team are the only people I’ve seen who pay attention to the question of the supply side in education. Merely creating some sort of “school choice” program is not enough to encourage new entrants. Most existing school-choice programs and the general education field itself is so regulated that new voucher or tax-credit scholarship programs mostly fill existing empty seats in existing private schools. The research shows that this does increase student achievement, so hooray for the few kids who manage to get into these programs, but the regulations greatly reduce the possibilities for whole-system improvements.
In other words, so-called school choice often functions as a tiny release valve rather than an invitation for some engineers to retool the entire ecosystem. It’s an add-on rather than an opening for revival or transformation. And transformation is what we need. Tinkering about the edges will never accelerate our kids enough to improve our culture or economy in the ways we need to confront our impending economic and social doom.
So, what does this mean in real life? Well, the private-school choice movement could benefit from considering the startup capabilities of charter schools (but not their regulatory compliance culture). Private investors should seed new schools with startup grants. States need to axe their regulatory thickets that are built for incumbents rather than new entrants—for example, state scholarship amounts are typically too low to pay for the majority of the cost a student brings to a school, so current private-school students effectively subsidize choice students.
Here’s another: schools typically can’t participate in school-choice programs unless they’re accredited, but accreditation requires three to six years of operation before schools can apply for it, which requires new private schools to cater to an entirely different clientele to get to the point where they can reach more and poorer kids, and families who take that leap with them are often disqualified from getting any scholarships once the school can accept them because many states bar existing private-school students from choice programs.
In other words, starting a private school is a catch-22. Charters have worked through these sorts of things, and states need to import some ideas like provisional accreditation into the private choice sector if they ever want to encourage a startup rather than an incumbent culture. That’s supposed to be a central justification for school choice, but programs labeled “school choice” almost entirely ignore this fundamental set of problems.
5. Deregulate Private Schools
A companion to No. 4 above is that states need to deregulate private schools. It’s not currently very well-known, but states micromanage private schools. Some have curriculum mandates, most have teacher credential mandates (although research shows that traditional teaching credentials are an utter waste of time and mostly Progressive brainwashing), and almost all have accreditation mandates. I have gone through several of these 400- to 700-page accreditation procedures, and they’re horrifying.
In the first place, there’s nearly no proof that the things accreditation requires improves school quality. “Develop a school improvement plan that incorporates all stakeholders,” blah blah blah. “Develop a sustainability and inclusivity plan that incorporates the whole community with a special focus on minorities.” Wow, the academic rigor here is punching me in the face.
In the second, as a state school board member recently told me, “Why is the state telling private institutions what they must do with private funds and staff time?” As in higher education, using accreditation as a condition of allowing taxpayer funding corrupts the accreditation process. It gives accreditors power to tell schools, “Nice little Christian school you got there. Be a sad thing if you actually taught your religion’s sexual ethics and therefore lost your ability to accept taxpayer aid.” Accreditation needs to be entirely privatized for private schools. End of story.
Further, the federal government, in all its wisdom, provides funds to “help” private schools by giving their teachers the same crappy “training” that helps public-school teachers perform so well. That can go, too, thanks.
6. End the Teacher Education Monopoly
People. The research says certification doesn’t produce better teachers. That’s probably because teacher certification and teacher degree programs are more about Progressive indoctrination than about academics or effective teaching. Mostly, we have no idea why effective teachers are effective. So we can’t teach it. We can only open more opportunities for more people to try, and quickly cut the ones who don’t rise to the occasion. We can also deregulate education in general, because the education culture of “Mother, may I?” turns off smart people who can make big payoffs in other fields by busting their butts against far less mindless opposition. It also attracts people who care more about self-esteem and box-checking than they do concrete achievement. The best box-checkers get promoted to principal, then superintendent. Now you know why education is such a mess.
State-mandated teacher credentials will always be terrible because they create a monopoly for whomever issues the credentials. The certifiers alone get to say who can teach, who can’t, and can charge would-be entrants. Padded little spot for them, but not so great for the kids, who aren’t getting better teachers out of the deal, or for teachers, who have to be fleeced just to get into the profession and by mandatory “continuing ed” credits that stick them in ongoing mindless yet high-priced classes of busywork. Seriously, ask a teacher how much she likes taking those classes to maintain their certification. Teachers don’t. Because the classes suck. Because they can’t help but suck. Because the state granted their issuers a monopoly, and monopolies mean high prices and low quality.
7. End Curriculum Monopolies
Curriculum monopolies are an expression of the Puritan wing of conservatism, of the folks who support central planning as long as they are the central planners, because at least they will make those big welfare programs solvent. Before that, however, it was Progressives who owned schemes to “standardize” education along the lines of the “scientific management” of big business. They’ve brought this general principle into all of education, and it deforms curriculum under the guise of “education standards.” These are mindbogglingly stupid, unintelligible, politically correct lists of state (and now national) mandates for what teachers must teach in each subject in each grade.
Yes, I know Republicans have been gung-ho about curricular central planning since before Reagan. But it doesn’t work. Research shows education standards have nothing to do with student achievement. Again, that should be no surprise, because monopolies destroy quality. They create a power center that naturally attracts special-interest groups, whose inevitable dominance erodes self-governance, thought, and language.
So it’s time for state and federal lawmakers to get out of the curriculum bleaching business. In the process, they also need to shift from the kind of tests that enforce curriculum control to the kind that free people and children to think lively thoughts.
Notice you don’t really see “education reformers” talking about these topics much. That’s because they have largely been assimilated by the Borg. It’s up to the rest of us whose livelihoods don’t depend on toeing the party line to start making things that actually will benefit our children the top priorities for the elected officials we can still influence.