Poor Student Achievement Shows Centralized Education Policy Has Failed

Lindsey Burke /

Tomorrow, the highly anticipated math and reading scores of our nation’s 4th and 8th graders will be released as part of the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Often referred to as the nation’s “report card,” the NAEP provides a snapshot of the educational performance of students throughout the country, which can be used to track progress over time and inform education policy.

But don’t hold your breath for any drastic increase in student achievement. Sadly, tomorrow’s results, like the results of the past 40 years, could end up being relatively flat.

The results are likely to be relatively unchanged because federal school policy has been unchanged over the same time period—yet the past four and a half decades have seen a remarkable increase in federal education spending and control. Every year, more and more federal programs are added under the Department of Education’s management, creating Washington micro-managers of local schools across the country.

In recent years, public ire over the nation’s mediocre educational performance has rightly been directed toward No Child Left Behind (NCLB). But while both sides of the aisle agree that NCLB is broken, those on the left, including the Obama Administration, do not believe that the federal role in education is fundamentally flawed. Despite lackluster results after decades of increasing federal control and spending, there are those who believe that, given just one more chance, this time Washington will be able to get it right.

This Washington-knows-best mentality is now playing out in the halls of the Senate, where Senators Tom Harkin (D–IA) and Mike Enzi (R–WY) have introduced a proposal (which made it out of the Senate education committee recently) to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), now known as No Child Left Behind. It’s another big-government education proposal that does not fundamentally reduce the federal role in education.

The Harkin–Enzi proposal maintains the testing requirements introduced in No Child Left Behind (states are required to test students annually in grades 3-8 and once again in high school in reading and math, and must disaggregate student performance data as under current law).  However, the proposal departs from NCLB by eliminating the requirement that schools show “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) toward the aspiration-turned-federal mandate that all children be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

Instead of requiring schools to make AYP, states will have to identify the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, as well as the 5 percent of schools that have made the least amount of progress narrowing achievement gaps between students. States will then have to craft strategies to turn around those poorly performing schools.

While the proposal eliminates the onerous AYP requirement, it replaces the regulation with what is likely to become a far greater intrusion by Washington into local school policy. States must adopt “college and career-ready” standards, a new and unprecedented overreach into the content taught in local schools. Senator Harkin made clear his intent clear in comments to Education Week:

[Harkin] said the moment is right for a move away from achievement targets in part because nearly all states have signed onto the Common Core State Standards Initiative…. That means that all states will be striving to hit a high bar, he said….

“There’s a subtle shift here,” [said] Sen. Harkin. “We are moving into a partnership role with the states.”

Kevin Carey over at the Quick and the Ed notes the tight relationship the Common Core State Standards Initiative—which the Obama Administration continues to claim is voluntary—has with the federal government:

…all states will have to have legitimate college- and career-ready standards and tests, but will be able to hold schools accountable for test results more or less as they see fit.

Now, this puts an enormous amount of weight on the Common Core standards. Basically, all federal K-12 policy now depends on them.

Overall, this proposal for a ninth reauthorization of ESEA is just that: a ninth reauthorization of the failed status quo. A far better approach would be to allow states to completely opt out of No Child Left Behind and direct their dollars and decision-making in a way that would best meet local students’ needs. Perhaps then, when the next NAEP results are published in a few years, we’ll see a long-overdue increase in student achievement.