Fixing education policy.

Repairing some of the worst Bush administration screw-ups.
April 1 2008 8:10 AM

Education

Fixing education policy.

With President Bush's approval rating hovering in the 30s, just about everyone has an opinion on what George W.  has done wrong in the last seven years. But not everyone can explain what the next president must do to fix it. So we've called in some experts to tell us. Fixing It is a 10-part series to be published over the course of this week with contributions from some of our favorite writers, offering detailed policy prescriptions for the next president, whomever that may be, on how to quickly undo some of the damage. One of our contributors wryly describes the series as "News You Can Use. If You Happen To Be President." Read the other entries here.

Illustration by Jason Raish. Click image to expand.

Identifying what needs to be fixed in the field of education is easy: the No Child Left Behind Act, currently up for reauthorization but stalled in Congress pending the next election. The elaborate law requires schools to test the bejeezus out of elementary- and middle-school students in reading and math, to test them again in high school, and to sprinkle in a few science tests along the way. Schools posting consistently poor test scores are supposed to be punished so that they'll clean up their acts and allow NCLB's ultimate goal to be achieved in 2014. The act imagines that essentially all students across the country will be "proficient" in that year, meaning that they'll all pass the battery of standardized tests required by the NCLB. Hence the act's catchy title.

NCLB was enacted in 2001 with huge bipartisan support, though many Democrats in Congress have since disclaimed if not denounced it, presumably having had some time to read it. The act is at once the Bush administration's signature piece of education legislation, its most significant domestic policy initiative, and the most intrusive federal education law in our nation's history. The federal government provides less than 10 percent of all education funding, yet NCLB drives education policy in every school district in the country. In short, it's a big deal. It's also in need of repair. No one—conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican—doubts that.

Fix-it list: Education

That's the easy part. The hard part is how to fix it. Let's start with what not to do.

Don't scrap it. Some reformers advocate scrapping the whole thing and starting anew. Well-known education author/activist Jonathan Kozol recently went so far as to stage what he termed a "partial" hunger strike (others mercilessly called it a "diet") to protest the act. Efforts like Kozol's, designed to torpedo the act, are rash. NCLB has big problems, but its core ideas—creating high goals for all schools, ensuring accountability for meeting them, and focusing attention on disadvantaged and minority students who are too often ignored—are worth retaining. That's why both the New York Times and writers for the National Review have praised the basic idea of NCLB.

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Don't stop all testing; stop stupid testing. Most of the problems caused by the act stem from its ridiculous test-and-punish regime. Specifically, the act promotes the heavy use and misuse not just of tests, but of stupid tests. This isn't a reason to abandon all testing; it is a reason, however, to come up with better tests and better ways to use those tests to judge schools.

There are three problems, in particular, that need addressing.

We don't know enough about school quality. Current test results don't tell us all we need to know about schools. Far from it. Students are tested in reading and math and a little in science. Reading, math, and science are important, but so are social studies, history, literature, geography, art, and music. Instead of telling us how schools are doing in these other subjects, NCLB is turning them into endangered species by pushing schools—especially those that are struggling—to downplay if not ignore subjects not tested. Many tests that are given further narrow the focus of education by relying on multiple-choice questions that reward memorization and regurgitation rather than analytical and creative thinking.

What we think we know may be wrong. The second problem is that looking at just a sheet of test scores is a lousy way to judge school quality. Standardized test results tend to track socioeconomic status. As a teacher once remarked, the most accurate prediction you can make based on a student's test score is her parents' income. Teachers and schools with middle-class kids will invariably look better than those with poor kids if the only measure is how many students in a particular year pass a test. What we can't tell from scores alone, because they don't tell us where students started or how much they progressed over the year, is the value that a particular teacher or school has added to a student's education. Basing teacher and school evaluations on a snapshot of a year's test scores makes about as much sense as judging investment advisers based on how much money they are managing instead of the gains they earn for their clients.

NCLB creates perverse incentives. The third and most fundamental problem has to do with perverse incentives. Schools must show annual improvements on test scores or face increasingly severe sanctions and the stigma of being labeled as failing. NCLB couples this punitive scheme with utter laxity regarding the standards and tests themselves. States get to develop their own standards, create their own tests, and set their own passing rates. Imagine if the EPA told the auto industry it would be fined heavily for polluting too much but let automakers decide for themselves what counts as "too much" pollution. That's basically how NCLB works.

It didn't take states very long to figure out how to play this weird little game: Avoid failure by lowering the bar! And that's exactly what some did, either by making the tests easier or simply lowering the score needed to be considered "proficient." As a result of shenanigans like these, most state tests are not very hard to pass. That many schools still post poor scores is a sign of how far we still need to travel, but it's important to recognize that, at a very basic level, this whole thing is a sham. NCLB, despite lofty rhetoric to the contrary, is not about equalizing opportunities in poor and rich, city and suburban schools; it's about making sure kids can learn some of the basics. No less, for sure, but also no more.

So what can the next president do to fix this mess? Propose an amended NCLB for reauthorization and make sure the new version contains at least three key changes:

Standardize the standards. It's time to create national standards and tests in at least reading, math, science, and social studies/history. National tests in the past have been nonstarters politically, but they have always polled well, and some politicians are starting to come around. The reality is that the current federal-state compromise isn't working and doesn't make sense in a shrinking and flattening world. Why should we expect less of a student in Mississippi than in Massachusetts? Do fractions and algebra matter in North Carolina but not North Dakota?

It's worth noting here that the best high-school students already take national tests, though we don't call them that. We call them Advanced Placement tests. No one argues that it would be better to have 50 different AP tests in American history instead of one. Why should only our best students have the advantage of a high-quality, national testing system?

Administer fewer tests. National tests should be given less often, perhaps in only fourth, eighth, and 11th grades. This would provide relief from the relentless test march that characterizes elementary- and middle-school years, which would give breathing room for subjects like music and art while concentrating attention on key thresholds in education. Reducing the overall amount of tests should also improve the quality of the tests themselves.

Rank schools; don't prescribe punishments. The federal government should get out of the business of telling states how to reform and punish their schools, and we should drop 2014 as our rendezvous with perfection. It's a gimmick that has outlived its usefulness and is now causing more harm than good as states grow increasingly desperate to find ways to avoid the looming possibility that most of their schools will be labeled as failing. The federal government should instead, right now, create a system to rank every school within a state. A ranking system will provide both crucial information and create ongoing pressure for reform. It will also take away the incentive to game the testing system. Because some schools will always be ranked higher than others, there's no reason to try to make all students look as if they're from Lake Wobegon.

Scores on national tests should be one factor in the rankings but not the only one. School quality should also be measured using value-added assessments, crediting schools that make exceptional progress with their students, regardless of where those students started. Other criteria should include graduation rates, measured fairly and uniformly; college-attendance rates; and parental satisfaction. Still other criteria, such as advancement from grade to grade, might be used for elementary and middle schools. Ranking systems aren't perfect, but using multiple criteria to rank schools should provide a much clearer and fuller picture of school quality. States can then decide on their own how they want to sanction or assist the low-performing schools.

If and when NCLB is fixed, the next president should concentrate on two key issues: teachers and preschool.

Teachers and money. Math and science teachers are in short supply, and there aren't enough good teachers in high-poverty and high-minority schools. A partial answer to this problem has been known for a long time. It's called money. To attract more and better qualified teachers, and to attract them to particular subjects and particular schools, we need to pay them more. The federal government has money. You see where this is headed.

Teachers and prestige.Money alone is not enough. Respect, prestige, and decent working conditions also matter. The federal government cannot monitor working conditions in tens of thousands of schools, but it can create a teaching program that restores prestige to the profession. Teach for America—which places recent college graduates for two-year stints in some of the most difficult schools in the nation—is inundated with applications. In recent years, they've had to turn down four out of every five applicants, most from very good colleges. Indeed, in one year, 10 percent of the entiresenior classes at Yale and Dartmouth applied.

The federal government should create a similar program by agreeing to reimburse at least some of the college expenses of those who enter teaching. Colleges and universities should also chip in, much as law schools cover the student loans of their graduates who go into public service. The longer the service, the more loans forgiven. The federal government should use this as a model to encourage college graduates to go into teaching—and to stay there for more than two years.

Preschool. It's clear that many children should start school before kindergarten. The benefits of high-quality preschool, especially for children from poorer families, easily outweigh the costs. States have recognized this and have pumped billions of dollars into preschool education over the last decade, but millions of children remain without access. The federal government, in conjunction with the states, should strive to provide access at least to all 4-year-olds whose families cannot afford a high-quality preschool on their own. This would be both a politically popular measure and one of the single best investments any level of government could make.

More could be done, of course, but this is plenty for starters. All of these fixes will take real leadership and real money. But they're worthwhile and certainly better investments than our current response to educational failure: building more prisons.

Jim Ryan is the academic associate dean and William L. Matheson and Robert M. Morgenthau distinguished professor at the University of Virginia School of Law where he teaches law and education. He is at work on a book tentatively titled Five Miles Away, A World Apart: The Law and Politics of Public Education.

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