"New" No Child Left Behind Findings Aren't So New

| by Cato Institute

Posted by Neal McCluskey | Associate Director of the Center for Educational Freedom

You probably don’t need to read it unless you really want the details, but the Thomas B. Fordham Institute just released a report finding that academic standards vary widely from state to state under the No Child Left Behind Act, creating an “accountability illusion.” I say you probably needn’t peruse the paper not because it doesn’t have solid data or a decent analysis – Fordham has put out a lot of fine studies on the state of state standards – but because it doesn’t really tell us anything new. We’ve known for years that NCLB is essentially a big lie.

Unfortunately, the findings aren’t the only slightly stale bit in this report. The recommendations are also warmed over, and they’re just as logic-defying as they’ve always been. From the press release for the paper:

"In their foreword to the study, Finn and Petrilli wrote that the solution to this dilemma is not to scrap NCLB or to federalize tests and standards. Instead, they argue, the Obama Administration and Congress should create incentives for states to voluntarily sign on to rigorous, comprehensive common standards and tests. Washington should then publish the results for every school in the land but allow states to decide what to do with schools that don’t meet those common expectations. This would ensure greater transparency and reinforce state responsibility. “Best of all,” they note, “it would end the gamesmanship that has characterized the federal-state relationship for the past seven years.”

“Finn and Petrilli” are Fordham President Chester Finn and Vice President Michael Petrilli, and I’ve been over this nationalizing-without-federalizing approach with them before.

First off, when “the Obama Administration and Congress…create incentives,” that is federalizing tests and standards. One need look no further than the last forty-plus years of federal involvement in education, or in almost everything else for that matter, to see clearly that Washington has constantly used monetary “incentives” – change your laws or you don’t get your taxpayers’ dollars back! – to control countless things over which it has no constitutional authority. Whether it’s withholding highway funds to alter drinking ages, or threatening to keep money from states that don’t sign on to NCLB, “incentives” have equaled “control.”

And who would decide whether standards and tests were “rigorous” or “comprehensive” in Finn and Petrilli’s scheme? If federal ducats are the adoption bait, it would almost certainly be the feds. But it doesn’t really matter: As I’ve written many times before, all the standards-setting evidence we have screams that standards set by government, whether states or the same feds who brought us NCLB, will almost certainly be low. Indeed, as I reminded readers just a few days ago, Fordham itself has only been able to point to three out of fifty states with laudable standards. In light of that pitiful batting average, why would we ever think that nationalized standards-making is a promising solution? When we consider how standards are made in a government-run system, we definitely wouldn’t: Special interests employed by the system, ranging from teachers, to principals, to state bureaucrats, have the most motivation and clout to influence political control over the system, and it’s in their greatest interest to have low standards that are easy to hit. Hence, the dismal state-level performance.

At this point, frankly, it’s pretty darn clear that NCLB is a failure. It should also be obvious that further centralizing political control would just be dumping more water into the already submerged ship. Unfortunately, the latter seems to keep escaping the notice of far too many people.

Read the Opposing Views debate, "Has No Child Left Behind Improved Public Education?"