Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Bush Education Policy

Much of the discussion about No Child Left Behind has centered on its provisions to base federal funding decisions on test scores, and predictably this debate says more about the participants' relative trust of teachers as professionals or the concept of competition as a means to excellence than about any interpretation of evidence for or against specific policies.

That might be because of the spotty nature of the evidence available. I have been unable to find any data online directly analyzing the effect of NCLB, though there is much indirect data. This site provides performance data from achievement tests for most states (look up yours, it's fun!), during the period of NCLB. Here is evidence that NCLB's teacher requirements are hard on rural schools.

As a physician I have to admit being obsessed with evidence of efficacy, and I must commend NCLB for stressing federal funding being targetted to well-proven educational initiatives. The Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse is an excellent idea, for instance.

It's ironic though that central provisions of NCLB are completely without evidence to support them. Taking kids out of schools with poor test scores is the biggest single intervention offered amounting to almost a third of the budget allotted to failing schools. Standardized testing has never been shown to improve educational outcomes.


An underlying principle in NCLB is that injecting a measure of competition into education provides incentive for excellence. However, it must be remembered that competition is itself a tool like any other and must be applied where it has most effect. In this case, we must identify the level of the educational organization where decisionmaking and resource allocation occurs. This is seldom the individual school, but NCLB acts as if it is. Usually principals have very limited control over personell decisions, operating budget, and other critical regulatory matters that can affect the education provided at his/her school. Thus applying incentives at that level is senseless. Make teachers compete in some way if you want them to improve their motivation perhaps. Make school districts compete if you want them to be more efficient and have better services. But the schools themselves are just buildings.

My final quibble with NCLB is that it violates the principles of federalism that Republicans traditionally champion. It represents federal intrusion into the state matter of education on a massive scale. It brings unfunded mandates of the type Republicans have long fought in other areas of government action.

There is some role for the Federal government in education, especially in the matter of college loans, and evening out regional variation in education funds and quality. But NCLB has too many fundamental conceptual flaws to be successful in the long run. The emphasis on evidence-based funding should be preserved, but the rest of the law needs to be scrapped.

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