George Will on NCLB: Right diagnosis, wrong cure

George Will doesn't much like the federal government, and he certainly doesn't much like the federal government getting involved in education. So it comes as no surprise that he doesn't like No Child Left Behind. More precisely, he loathes it.

He's a smart guy who's often right. In this case, however, he's just partly right. He's right that "NCLB was supposed to generate information that would enable schools to be held accountable for cognitive outputs commensurate with federal financial inputs." Yet much of that information is not trustworthy--such as the law's absurdly implemented "persistently dangerous schools" tally. And there's no denying that even the law's most important measures--assessments of student learning in reading and math--are open to abuse. Will cites the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's own Proficiency Illusion study to show how, under the law, "most states retain the low standards they had before; some have defined proficiency down."

But it's hard to believe that his solution--letting states choose to ignore the law, as a way station to getting the feds out of k-12 education altogether--would make things better. He contends that "America always is more likely to have a few wise state governments than a wise federal government"--and that's why he supports Michigan Congressman Peter Hoekstra's proposal to let states receive their NCLB funds via block grants--with no strings attached.

To be sure, he's correct that "a few" state governments have acted wisely in this domain. According to Fordham Institute research, precisely three states--Massachusetts, California, and South Carolina--are home to both solid academic standards and rigorous academic tests. Together their students account for about 17 percent of America's 53 million school-age children. What about the other 83 percent?

More representative is Mr. Hoekstra's Michigan, whose academic standards received a D the last time we reviewed them (among other problems, the state didn't ask its students to learn about any particular individuals from American history), and whose third-grade reading test passing score is set at the 16th percentile--meaning that virtually all students except those with "issues" will pass it. They barely need to read.

While NCLB may be inciting the Michigans of the world to keep their standards low (so as to meet the law's fairyland mandate of "universal proficiency" by 2014), it's far from clear that repealing or gutting that law will encourage the Wolverine State or its peers to suddenly raise the bar dramatically. They had low standards before NCLB, and they would probably have low standards after. That wouldn't be Hoekstra's preference, or Will's, but it's apt to be the continued course of action of the powers that be in Lansing and the interest groups that rattle their cages.

A better solution is to move towards national standards and tests--rigorous, comprehensive, and state-of-the-art. It need not be a federal project--it probably shouldn't be--but could result from state collaboration. Uncle Sam might provide some seed money (or the Gates Foundation could), and maybe offer incentives (money, regulatory relief) for states to sign up. Jurisdictions that demonstrate that their own standards surpass the rigor of the national ones would qualify, too. (So Massachusetts, California, and South Carolina could keep their own classy standards.)

Will would probably argue that this approach "increases the probability of continent wide mistakes." Perhaps. But our clumsy state-by-state approach to k-12 standards and tests has led to continent wide mistakes, too. Isn't it time to try something different?

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