More of the Same Will Not Salvage School Reform

Published March 28, 2007

If nothing else, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has proven it can collect and report telling statistics about the condition of K-12 schooling. But what remains in question is the effectiveness of the federal government in acting on such data to reform education.

The DOE released two reports on February 22, from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) that were eye-opening when placed side by side.

One report found from studying transcripts that high school graduates in 2005 earned more credits, got higher grades, and took more challenging courses than did their counterparts 15 years ago.

Unfortunately, the second report showed reading scores of high school seniors in 2005 had declined significantly since the early 1990s. Only 35 percent were proficient readers, down 5 percentage points from 1992.

As for math, NAEP launched a new test in 2005, the results of which could not fairly be compared to previous years. However, it was scarcely encouraging that only 23 percent scored at the proficient level on the new math test.

The juxtaposition of these results–higher and higher grades for less and less learning–helps explain why U.S. students lead the world in self-esteem while lagging in actual achievement.

A Brookings Institution study last fall found U.S. eighth-graders were six times more likely to express confidence in their math skills than were Korean eighth-graders, but Koreans’ math scores were far higher.

As Congress begins looking at reauthorization of the five-year-old No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, these studies raise serious questions about the federal role in education reform.

Some Washington insiders are calling for imposing tighter NCLB controls on the high schools, or even setting national standards. That would be short-sighted, though, because federal involvement in K-12 schooling has been expanding steadily since passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education (ESEA) 42 years ago (NCLB is merely the latest version of ESEA). The return on the billions we’ve already spent has been scant.

To be sure, some tinkering with NCLB could be productive. An Aspen Institute commission is advocating assessing teachers according to the academic gains they help their students achieve, rather than their amassing of education credentials. Unfortunately, teacher unions already are lining up to derail that sensible “value-added” proposal. Therein lies the problem of any reform that relies on cooperation of a change-averse public school establishment.

Rather than placing all bets on compliance with NCLB, Washington policymakers ought to adopt incentives that would enable parents to find good private schools for their children and thereby exert competitive pressures on public schools to improve. To be most effective, school choice should be for all, not just for selected categories of need.

A good starting point is Utah’s first-in-the-nation universal voucher program, signed into law February 12 by Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. (R). Virtually all families will be eligible for a means-tested voucher worth between $500 and $3,000 per child to use at a qualifying private school. That will help empower parents as consumers of education no longer at the mercy of an education establishment.

Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman long championed the universal voucher as a means of sparking in education the competition that has driven innovations in many sectors of American life. The Utah law is imperfect as a catalyst because of a “mitigation” provision that pays public school districts for up to five years for any students they lose to vouchers. However, it is one significant step toward choice for all.

Research by Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby found competition motivated Milwaukee public schools to improve, even though vouchers there are available only to low-income families. A choice system such as Utah’s that empowers middle-income families as well could have even more dramatic impact.

Washington shouldn’t try to impose Utah-style choice nationally, but it could allow states to opt out of NCLB if they adopt universal choice. The federal government could mandate that as long as a state could show academic results, it would not lose federal aid as a result. That way, Washington could concentrate on issuing a Nation’s Report Card, something they recently have done very well.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.