Improving Education, Part I

No Child Left Behind is a law that is admirable in its intent but flawed in its particulars.

Its stated goal was to enable disadvantaged students to escape clearly failing public schools. This goal is absolutely correct. I’ve read enough articles on charter school lotteries to know that urban parents are desperate for an out – and we should do everything we can to give it to them.

Problem is, NCLB failed to establish a universal definition for “failing school.”

Instead, the law allows each state to draw up its own standards and create its own tests. ‘Tis true enough that education has traditionally been the province of the states, but NCLB takes federalism too far, and what has resulted is educational chaos. Did you know, for example, that the gap between the percentage of Mississippi students testing as proficient in fourth grade reading on the NAEP and the percentage of Mississippi students testing as proficient on Mississippi’s own reading test is a whopping 71%?

My own state is not nearly as bad as that, but as an educator, I am frequently disturbed by Virginia’s tendency to set the bar low. For example, to be declared “proficient” in first year Chemistry, Virginia requires that you receive the piddling score of 55% on the end-of-year Standards of Learning exam. It is entirely possible – and trust me, I have seen this – for a Virginia Chemistry student to “pass” the course without understanding basic stoichiometry. And the state’s standards for other subjects are not much better. I have, for example, seen students pass sixth grade mathematics without understanding either long division or fractions. This is not a good thing!

The trouble with NCLB is that it has created perverse incentives to cheat.

Because the law has allowed states to make up their own standards, we find ourselves in Lake Wobegon, where the children are all above-average. The states know they will be punished if an insufficient percentage of their students are testing as “proficient,” so they set their standards so ridiculously low that even a monkey can make the grade.

The fix for this is simple: enable the federal government to oversee test creation.

I don’t hold to the idea that standardized tests should be abolished. I believe they are the fairest means to measure educational progress if they are developed and administered correctly. However, we should hold the states accountable for the quality – or lack thereof – of their exams, and we should use the NAEP to do this. The NAEP is an achievement test administered on a regular basis to a nationally representative sample of students that is considered by many to be the gold standard in U.S. educational assessment. We should compare the NAEP’s results to the results the states report on their own exams. If a state shows a Mississippi-type gap, the federal government should be empowered to force that state to revise its tests.

This solution still delegates the primary responsibility for crafting educational standards to the individual states, but hopefully, it will keep rampant score inflation in check.   


5 thoughts on “Improving Education, Part I

  1. I think the best way to improve education is privatization. I remember a classic Simpsons episode which makes a mockery of the idea of privatized public schools (the school is bought out by a company whose only interest is market research for toy manufacturing), but that's not what would happen if privatization was overseen by Federal testing standards and schools were under pressure to direct children on the right path toward college.

    Now, you may be asking “How will the poor afford a private school…their prices are insane?” Well do you know why private schools charge so much? Apart from the fact that they deliver a very good education, that is. Private school charge a lot of money because:

    a) They are forced to compete with a free alternative, thus artificially inflating their market (a similar dynamic happens to health insurers when forced to compete with a government manage health system).

    b) They are not given any Federal funding (my ideal solution would include a significant portion of the Federal assistance we use today to maintain minimum standards while allowing schools to seek private funding sources either from their family base or from local businesses)

    c) They only have to market to a small subset of the population. The public schools fill the void in the market unnaturally. If Schools had to fight over all of the less well-to-do families, then acquiring volume would be the business model of choice (if you can't get much funding out of the pockets of each individual family…you need to to attract more total families) and the prices would come down.

    National public education is run by the government with the incentive of produce an army of good little worker bees. Children who go to private (and perocheal) schools have an advantage because the goal is not to produce little worker bees, but to maximize the potential of each student (because that's what the free market demands…parents want the best for their kids…they don't simply want painfully weak standards designed to ensure quality service from your trash collector or your store clerk). We need as many schools as possible to have the goal of maximizing each student's individual potential. The only way for that to happen is to force more schools to respond to market forces.


  2. I agree that expanding choice is another solution – as a matter of fact, I'm probably going to discuss that in Part IV of this series. I suspect, though, that our current political reality makes full privatization impossible, which means we do need to think of ways to improve the public schools as they are now.


  3. How about crushing the teacher's union…that might be a start. :\

    In all seriousness, we have to find some way to break the ranks of the teacher's union and stop their opposition of scoring teacher performance.


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