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Cheat Sheets

This article appeared as the cover story in the September issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.

THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION’S signature domestic program is continuing the familiar pattern of so-called “education reform”: loudly pretend to demand high standards, but quietly accept low ones. Nearly four years after its enactment, it is now increasingly clear that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) will fail.

The White House called NCLB “the most important federal education reform in history.” Brushing aside traditional Republican concerns about centralization, the statute gave the U.S. Department of Education unprecedented new powers. It demanded that the public schools adopt detailed testing programs in reading and mathematics, and commit themselves to achieving “proficiency” for 100 percent of their students by the year 2014. But the law’s 1,100-page text failed to provide any definition of “proficiency” even though it used that crucial term literally hundreds of times. While authorizing Washington to withhold subsidies from states whose programs fall short, NCLB gave both federal and state officials all the room they will need to perpetuate the status quo.

The key administrative decisions that will determine NCLB’s long-term effects have now been made, and are not going to be changed by any fixes that Congress or the White House are ready to consider. The states will pretend to adopt tough standards and the federal government will pretend to hold them to their promises, but no state will lose its subsidies no matter how mediocre its performance. Essentially we are seeing the policy equivalent of professional wrestling.

NCLB depends on data. It can work only if the states report precise, quantitative information about educational performance in unprecedented detail. These numbers have to be reliable even if they reveal truths profoundly threatening to the interests of those who compile them. Thus the forces pushing for the truth have to overcome powerful incentives to conceal poor performance. If state and local officials can get away with fudging the truth, NCLB’s grand targets of “proficiency” and “adequate yearly progress” will be meaningless.

Sadly, it is already clear that dishonest reporting by the states continues to be massive. More often than not, those in charge of the public schools do not want the public to know the truth about matters such as school violence, graduation rates, teacher qualifications, and student achievement. More often than not, the U.S. Department of Education is complicit in the states’ dishonesty. For the most part it has chosen to sacrifice the public interest to its own institutional interests in appeasing the public-school establishment and in falsely depicting the Bush administration’s pet program as a brilliant success.

ON SCHOOL VIOLENCE, the states have been so evasive about the truth that they invite caricature. Ostensibly, No Child Left Behind requires the states to identify every specific school that is “persistently dangerous,” and to give students in such schools the right to transfer out. But the NCLB statute never defined the term “persistently dangerous,” just as it never defined academic “proficiency.” Instead it left that definition up to the states, “in consultation with a representative sample of local educational agencies.” The states need not even consult with the police, or with any other outside experts.

Left with a free hand, the District of Columbia and 47 of the 50 states officially denied in 2004 that they have any dangerous schools at all. The state and local education bureaucrats in charge of the most crime-ridden parts of places such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington claimed in their NCLB reports that they did not have even one unsafe school. The federal bureaucrats in charge of evaluating those reports have done nothing to discourage such fibs, at least not publicly — not even something as simple as expressing disagreement.

Among the three states that admitted last year to having any unsafe schools — New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota — the total number of such schools was 26. A year earlier, some six states had admitted having a total of 52 unsafe schools, but within months two of those six states — Nevada and Texas — claimed to have found after reviewing their data that they really had none. That claim, unchallenged by Washington, reduced the official nationwide total of unsafe schools to 38. The NCLB reports have thus been growing more and more detached from reality, with the states learning from experience that they risk no unpleasant consequences for lying.

The issue of graduation rates provides another test of the bureaucrats’ truthfulness. Like school violence, this issue involves less philosophical disagreement than achievement testing: It should be easier to count how many American schoolchildren drop out before age 18 than to judge how many are academically “proficient.” Though absolute precision remains elusive, there is now a broad consensus that only about two-thirds of those who start 9th grade end up graduating from high school four years later. A few of the states have been honest about reporting this, but the great majority have not been.

In June, the Education Trust, an advocacy group dedicated to improving the academic attainments of black, Hispanic, and low-income children, published a study — its second in 18 months — sharply criticizing the U.S. Department of Education for failing to enforce NCLB’s rules about accurate reporting. The study found most of the states to be claiming graduation rates “that look dubiously high when compared to the results of multiple independent analyses of state graduation rates.” Especially striking was the case of North Carolina, which in its NCLB report claimed a graduation rate of 97 percent; an honest figure would have been about 64 percent.

After repeated criticism from think tanks and the mainstream news media for its shoddy performance in this area, the Department of Education finally took action in July. It announced that it will be publishing its own interim, state-by-state estimates of graduation rates together with the states’ own reported figures — while encouraging the states to “work toward the ultimate goal of improving their own data collection systems.” What this will mean in practice remains unclear; it may well turn out that the department will bury its own estimates deep within its website, while the states continue to mislead their own citizens with numbers that every specialist knows to be false. So far neither North Carolina nor any other state has suffered any concrete penalties for phony reports — nor is there any indication that they will.

A similar promise of improvement came in mid-summer from the National Governors Association (NGA), which announced that the governors of 45 states had agreed on reforms in calculating graduation rates. The NGA conceded that “the quality of state high school graduation and dropout data is such that most states cannot accurately account for their students as they progress through high school” and recommended that the states “begin implementing” specific reforms. Some of these recommendations, such as sophisticated changes in data systems, would take years; others, such as not misreporting drop-outs as transfers, could be put into effect immediately. If every one of them is indeed implemented in good faith, we should see substantial change for the better — but whether that will actually happen remains to be seen. Certain passages buried deep in the NGA’s report are far from inspiring confidence, for example the following: “Many states are also using one method of calculating a graduation rate for federal reporting requirements and another for state reporting requirements. Although multiple measures can be useful for developing richer understanding of a problem, they can also be quite confusing to the public if they are not well communicated.” In other words the NGA has not only failed to repudiate the widespread practice of deliberately providing fuzzy data under NCLB, but is even subtly encouraging it.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, such experiences have encouraged the state and local school bureaucracies to be even more evasive about matters that are less subject to precise, objective measurement. For example, No Child Left Behind ostensibly requires that by 2006 all public-school teachers must demonstrate competence in their academic subjects. The statute rightly challenges longstanding assumptions about what a teacher needs to know in order to be “qualified” — assumptions deeply entrenched in powerful institutions such as teachers’ unions. How much emphasis should teacher-certification standards place on “how to teach” — as in the pedagogy courses taken by education majors — and how much on “what to teach” — specific academic subjects such as biology or history? NCLB reflects the view, increasingly persuasive to those without material or ideological interests in the status quo, that current certification standards give too much weight to the former and too little to the latter.

For teachers already on the job as distinct from new hires, NCLB gives the states great leeway; many states have taken advantage of that leeway to adopt standards so lax as to be meaningless. For example, Maine’s Department of Education allows teachers to avoid passing an objective test in their subjects or taking university coursework equivalent to an academic major; instead they can substitute a huge range of pseudo-credentials. They can earn “points” for having attended a conference or workshop, served as a mentor teacher or after-school tutor, been a “participant in a state or national stakeholders group” or member of a professional organization — or even for having written a grant proposal.

In December, the National Council on Teacher Quality, an independent research center that advocates more rigorous training for teachers, published a state-by-state study of the response to NCLB. Its conclusion: “Even with the 2006 deadline looming, only a handful of states appear willing to comply with the spirit of that portion of the law that seeks to correct the long-tolerated, widespread and inadequate preparation of American teachers in their subject areas. Some states are indifferent or even antagonistic about the prospect of declaring significant numbers of their active teachers unqualified.”

The think tank’s president Kate Walsh predicted that “in the short term, the prospects are dim for making genuine strides in improving teacher quality. The law’s clarity on the academic preparation required of new teachers bodes a more promising future, but where veteran teachers are concerned the law is doomed to disappoint, save in a minority of states.” The study gave only one state, Colorado, an “A” rating for demanding that all teachers either provide proof of academic content courses nearly equivalent to an undergraduate major or passing a test of subject-matter knowledge.

All of today’s veteran teachers will of course retire someday, and we can hope that the states will use genuinely demanding standards to pick their successors. But NCLB leaves ample room to continue avoiding such standards. The states can adopt tests of content knowledge as easy as they choose — and they will continue to be under pressure from the teachers’ unions and other interest groups to avoid letting those tests become serious filters. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s most recent nationwide data, most of the states that test for content knowledge have set the minimum passing score “so low as to screen out only the very lowest performing individuals.” Some states, including Maryland, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania, have actually lowered their testing requirements for teachers since NCLB was enacted. As a tool for coaxing or pressuring the public-school establishment to adopt teacher-training reforms that threaten the establishment’s own interests, the statute is a failure.

IT IS IN THE TESTING OF CHILDREN, not of teachers, that the states will have the greatest incentives to combine the appearance of tough new standards with the reality of business as usual. Here again the U.S. Department of Education has failed to take effective steps against the adoption of tests that are too easy. One sees this in comparing the states’ tests with the department’s own National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Though many experts consider NAEP to be too easy, it is less vulnerable to distortion than NCLB because it carries no threat of adverse consequences for states that do poorly.

According to NAEP’s most recently available state-by-state results in reading, there was not one state where as many as half of 4th-graders were achieving the level of “proficiency” in reading. But according to the tests used by the states themselves, all but eight states were claiming that solid majorities of their 4th-graders were “proficient” in reading. For example, Virginia claimed that 73 percent of its 4th-graders were proficient — though the NAEP figure for Virginia was only 35 percent. According to NAEP, the highest-achieving of all the states was Connecticut, with 43 percent proficiency; but in its own testing program Connecticut claimed proficiency of 69 percent. Those two states look like models of honesty compared with Mississippi, which claimed 87 percent proficiency in reading even though its NAEP score was only 18 percent. Such gaps are so astronomical that they make one wonder whether “proficiency” as defined by the states’ public-school bureaucrats will mean anything at all. But from the triumphant rhetoric of the Department of Education and the White House, one would never know that these gaps exist.

The situation is almost certainly going to get worse. Proficiency tests are astonishingly easy to manipulate by means of various tricks that make schools seem more successful than they are, and No Child Left Behind creates huge incentives for the states to do just that. They can switch tests every few years, muddying long-term comparisons and creating the artificial appearance of short-term gains. They can abuse statistical techniques by treating the most wildly optimistic interpretation of a subgroup’s test results as definitive even if there is only a microscopic possibility that that interpretation is correct. They can concentrate tutoring programs and other resources on students who are just slightly below the threshold of “proficiency,” neglecting those who are well below or well above. They can fail to adopt rigorous procedures to prevent or detect cheating. In hopes that future policymakers will relax NCLB, they can set their targets for “adequate yearly progress” in such a way that they commit themselves to only modest annual advances at the outset but to much faster progress as they near the 2014 deadline.

Some states, such as Louisiana and Colorado, have already adopted “proficiency” standards, for purposes of reporting to Washington under NCLB, that are lower than the standards of their internal state assessments. The bottom line is that the more ways a state finds to lower the bar, the better that state will look. We are already seeing the predictable result: a “race to the bottom,” with the most self-serving, most deceptive states setting the pattern for the others. And the U.S. Department of Education is letting them get away with it, creating the illusion that children are learning more when in fact they are being measured with a rubber yardstick.

WHERE DOES NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND go from here? Its core supporters among neo-conservative education theorists are seeking amendments to “mend it, not end it,” hoping to fix its perverse incentives and other defects this year. But the Bush administration and its congressional allies have no stomach for the battles against the public-school establishment’s entrenched allies on Capitol Hill that would be needed for truly substantive amendments. They firmly refuse to consider any before NCLB’s scheduled reauthorization in 2007.

Moreover, even if such amendments could be passed it seems unlikely that they would deliver the results we should be seeking. The idea that mediocre schools can be transformed into excellent ones by means of centralized decrees has been thoroughly tested at the state level over the last two decades. In practice the public-school establishment has shown itself to be endlessly ingenious at evading centralized accountability systems; over time those systems have tended to drift from “tough” to “soft,” with standards relaxed as interest groups mobilize against them.

The vision of a tough, pro-reform U.S. Department of Education cracking down on spineless state and local school officials depends on a classic Utopian fallacy — comparing the concrete track record of the state and local bureaucrats with abstract plans for federal reforms. But in the real world the federal bureaucracy is even more vulnerable than the state and local ones to special-interest pressures. The teachers’ unions love the Department of Education.

The Bush administration’s most promising achievement in education reform is its pilot program of education vouchers for the District of Columbia — a program far more in keeping with the administration’s professed philosophy of an “ownership society” than the bureaucracy-laden NCLB. Parental choice offers the only solid hope for families trapped in dysfunctional schools: It enables them to escape immediately rather than keep waiting indefinitely for the results which the centralizers keep promising. But the administration is not even trying to revive the parental-choice provisions that it dropped from its 2001 draft of NCLB. In essence the Bush White House has done to federal education programs what the Nixon White House did to welfare programs, legitimizing the statist creations of its Democratic predecessors.

But as the example of welfare shows, such programs are judged in the long run by their actual results. By 2014 No Child Left Behind will clearly be seen to have failed, and the case for abolishing the U.S. Department of Education will be stronger than ever.

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