Friday, July 25, 2008

Do We Need a New Federal Policy in Education?

Many people have written criticizing NCLB - the No Child Left Behind Act. I have my own criticisms of that act, which I will not go into here.

But the Forum for Education Reform has produced a 72-page report entitled "Democracy At Risk: The Need for a New Federal Policy in Education." In that report, they propose to increase federal spending on education by $29 billion per year. Considering that 2008 federal spending on education amounts to something over $67 billion, that's a pretty hefty increase - 43%.

Among their evidence in support of the "need" for this, you'll find this statement:
By the mid-1970s, achievement had improved, college-going rates for African American and Hispanic students were equivalent to those for white students, and teacher shortages had been nearly eliminated. The United States led the world in education.

However, many of these initiatives were ended in the 1980s and the gains lost when the federal share of education spending was sharply cut in half. Although modest progress was made in the 1990s, other countries have surged ahead with strategic investments in systems that promote top-flight teaching for higher-order skills in every school.

You'll forgive me if I'm a bit skeptical of this position on American education in the mid-70's. In this sample chapter from Salem Press' book, The Seventies in America, the education scene during the 1970's does not look nearly as positive as the Forum for Education Reform would suggest. This was the decade of forced busing, "white flight," court-ordered equalization (meaning the court required that there be no more than $100 difference in spending between public school districts) and open classrooms. By 1975, according to this link, "reports showed that scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), used as a college entrance examination, had dropped dramatically since the previous decade." And this in spite of the fact that federal spending on education between 1965 and 1975 had increased by 207%! The final sentence in the chapter from the Salem Press book is: "Concern over apparently dropping test scores and over the quality of American education began to grow." Does this sound to you like the Forum for Education Reform's description of the mid-1970's in American education? (Oh, and by the way - until 1979 there WAS no U.S. Department of Education - so if the United States in fact "led the world in education" during the mid-70's, perhaps we ought to ask ourselves whether the federalization of American education might have had something to do with the decline in our schools.)

The Democracy At Risk report goes on to say that "the federal share of education spending was cut in half" during the 1980's. However, a more rational look at the situation is provided by the National Center for Education Statistics' report, entitled "Federal Support for Education: Fiscal Years 1980 to 2002." On page 3 of this report, the most significant drop in education spending between 1980 and 1985 is reported in this sentence: "During this same time period, elementary and secondary education funds dropped 21 percent, after adjusting for inflation." And between 1985 and 1990, spending on elementary and secondary inflation actually increased 12 percent.

As for the Democracy At Risk report's "modest progress" during the 1990's, on-budget education spending for elementary and secondary education increased 87% between 1990 and 2002; "off-budget support and nonfederal funds generated by federal legislation" increased 281%. If this is modest, I wonder what it would take for them to consider a funding increase "substantial"! Federal spending on education has continued to increase throughout the 6 years since 2002.

But for the Forum for Education Reform, we are still not spending enough federal money on education. In fact, on page 27 of "Democracy At Risk," they spend an entire page praising the Finnish system, which provides teacher candidates with a 3-year graduate degree in education, paid for entirely (including room and board) by the Finnish government. And while I would agree that it appears the Finnish system has produced excellent results, raising Finland to the very top of the heap in international comparisons, the cost has been extremely high. While in the United States our 2008 Tax Freedom Day was April 23 (meaning the average American has to work until that date just to pay our taxes), in Finland they did not hit theirs until June 5. That means the average Finnish worker pays almost half his/her income in taxes!

There must be a better way to improve America's education system than just throwing more money at it. The U.S. Census Bureau provides the following information on per-pupil spending in different states:
School district spending per pupil was highest in New York ($14,884), followed by New Jersey ($14,630) and the District of Columbia ($13,446). States where school districts spent the lowest amount per pupil were Utah ($5,437), Idaho ($6,440) and Arizona ($6,472). (More info here.)

But the amount spent per-pupil does not appear closely related to the likelihood that a state's young people will graduate from high school. Utah, which spent the least on education, had the second highest rate for high school graduation (88%), while the District of Columbia had only a 78% graduation rate. And the average graduation rate for the top five states in per-pupil spending was 81.8%, only .2% higher than the average graduation rate for the bottom five. The amount of money spent is clearly not the issue.

It seems to me that if this nation wants to improve our education system, we've got to do something besides continue to raise taxes and hand money to public school systems. As the Heritage Foundation article entitled, "Examining 'A Nation At Risk'" points out,
This year, American taxpayers will spend more than $9,200 on the average public-school student. That's a real increase of 69 percent over the per pupil expenditure in 1980. The total bill for a student who remains through high school will be almost $100,000.

And we see our schools continuing to decline. On page 6 of the Heritage Foundation's Backgrounder, April 28, 2008, the graph makes it clear - as funding has increased over the years since 1970, student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress has remained stable. The Heritage report continues,
We also know what doesn't work: Federal mandates such as No Child Left Behind. That law required states to test students, but it ends up giving states an incentive to "dumb down" their tests to maintain federal funding.

A 2006 study by University of California researchers found the gap between state and federal proficiency scores had increased in 10 of 12 states examined since NCLB was enacted. It's better to simply let states provide the funding and hold themselves accountable.

And their solution? It's much better than the "Democracy At Risk" report's suggestions, which are full of "educationalese" - perhaps because it's written by private citizens rather than professionals in the education establishment. "Examining 'A Nation At Risk'" recommends:
We have big problems in our education system. But we'll solve them from the bottom up, not the top down.

It's time to slash the regulation and start creating the educational system our students deserve.

And the Backgrounder article has this recommendation:
At the federal level, Congress should reform federal education policies to protect academic transparency, eliminate inefficient bureaucracy, and encourage innovation at the state and local levels. Policymakers should embrace policies that give more families the freedom to choose their children’s school; allow school leaders to innovate and develop successful school models and improve teacher quality; and allow parents, lawmakers, and the general public to hold public schools and students accountable for results.

This is near and dear to my heart as a professional educator and homeschooler. I hope the leaders in our federal government listen.

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