Bad ideas

Two of the worst federal education policy ideas in memory have made their way up Capitol Hill in recent days, one in a fuel-efficient hybrid occupied primarily by Democrats, the other in a gas-guzzling pickup full of Republicans. 

The Democrats' bad idea (though plenty of GOP members of the House Education and Labor Committee voted for it last week) is to kill Head Start's "National Reporting System." Misleadingly depicted in the press as a "test for pre-schoolers," in fact this administration initiative--primarily the work of assistant Health and Human Services secretary Wade Horn in fulfillment of a 1998 Congressional mandate to evaluate Head Start programs with special attention to whether kids coming out of them possess key pre-reading skills--is more like a fifteen-minute oral interview of kindergarten-eligible four- and five-year-olds by their teacher to determine which of these skills they have. Two excellent background explanations can be found here and here
      
The National Head Start Association and the rest of the Head Start establishment (believe me, it's as large, set in its ways, truculent, and defensive as the k-12 establishment) hate this. They have a forty-year-old iconic "child development" program that they absolutely, positively do not want to see turned into a pre-school program with heavy emphasis on cognitive skills, pre-literacy, pre-numeracy, and the rest. (It also needs to be noted that many of their members--Head Start "workers" as they were long known--never went to college and may not be up to the challenge of imparting such skills to young children.) The heck with whether the low-income kids who go through Head Start are any better off in kindergarten and first grade than those who didn't, most of whom aren't very well off at all.
           
This tug of war over the direction of Head Start has been going on for years. It's the main reason the 109th Congress failed to reauthorize the program. Now the establishment is winning and the 110th Congress will be able to say that it actually did something, albeit something dumb. The cognizant House committee voted last week to kill the National Reporting System, substituting happy talk about "strengthening school readiness by re-evaluating and updating current standards and assessments based on the best science...and improving professional development related to supporting children's cognitive, social and emotional development." There is every reason to expect the full House and Senate to follow suit.
           
Sorry, kids. The grownups are winning again. They have lobbyists and friends in Congress. You don't. Maybe you can teach yourself the alphabet.
           
Read more here and here and here
           
The GOP-inspired craziness is to be found in Senate and House "A-Plus" bills that would gut the No Child Left Behind act by allowing states, in effect, to take their federal dollars and run, with no real accountability for what they do with the money or, more important, for what educational results, if any, their schools produce. 
           
Backward reels the mind to an era before NCLB, before IASA, before Goals 2000, before Charlottesville, before America 2000, indeed before A Nation at Risk, when the Republican view of federal education policy was less is more. Leave states alone. (Not many years earlier, that position was known as "states' rights" and was mainly associated with Southern Democrats seeking to spare their constituents from the inconvenience of racial desegregation.)
           
To be fair, Senators DeMint and Cornyn and Congressman Hoekstra and their allies are possessed by half of a good idea. The good idea is to give states that want it tons more freedom to spend their federal dollars and operate their schools as they see fit in return for demonstrated student gains on comparable national exams keyed to national achievement standards. Those might be new standards and exams (see here); they might be NAEP's; they might be something else. But improved academic results have to be produced--for poor and minority kids--in return for operational and fiscal flexibility. 
           
The A-Plus bill omits the second half of that deal. Instead, it keeps one of NCLB's worst features--asking states to devise their own standards and tests--and then converts the rest of the law into the functional equivalent of a block grant.

The White House is apoplectic about this GOP defection, and a bit too defensive of its own proposed NCLB reforms, which are praiseworthy in some areas (e.g., school choice, unaccountably absent from A-Plus) and lame in others (standards and testing, especially).

The Congressional majority is understandably contemptuous of what they regard as an irresponsible block-grant scheme that pays no attention to poor kids, learning gaps, or any of the other basic rationales for Title I even to exist. David Broder has it right when he says "the abandonment of the first serious national effort to raise standards in the schools would be disastrous." (Unfortunately, his column can also be read as implying that I favor the DeMint-Hoekstra bill. Wrong.)

Sorry, children. State and local school systems have lobbyists. You don't. Those systems that served you so badly in the past want the freedom to do likewise in the future.

The Democrats' bad Head Start idea will probably become law. (Of course, the President could veto it.) The Republicans' bad NCLB idea almost surely won't.

What we want to know is: where are the good ideas? 
           
More information about the "A-plus" bills can be found here, here, and here. A thoughtful Washington Post editorial about them can be found here.

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