Education 'Reform,' From the Top Down

Bill Murchison

3/16/2010 2:01:00 PM - Bill Murchison

My goodness, it's just one favor after another the U.S. government wants to do for us.

By week's end, the president and his minions hope to have bought, embarrassed or intimidated enough fellow Democrats into passing, at long last, health care "reform." In the meantime, the White House lets us know it wants action on new national approaches to educational improvement. It just never seems to stop, this business of bringing the whole business of the United States under federal supervision.

Given President Obama's habit of imputing to George W. Bush responsibility for most of what's wrong today, it's interesting to note how Obama deals with the No Child Left Behind Act, whose approval Bush procured. He sees the act's impending expiration not as goodbye to a political delusion but rather as an opportunity to put his personal stamp on that delusion. One can hardly wait.

What Obama wants is, by his lights, more creative approaches to educational "improvement." Specifically, he calls for new ways of measuring academic improvement in America's public schools. States would be ordered to categorize their schools as high-performing, failing or in-between, with emphasis moved from the testing of math and reading to the shaping of incentives and rewards for schools that turn out college- or career-ready graduates.

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It is not that many would call the original, now-expiring, No Child Left Behind Act a pearl beyond price, gleaming and untouchable by mortal hands. The act seems to have resulted in, among other things, a philosophy among educators of "teaching to the test" in math and reading, to the impairment of such disciplines as art and music. Nor does its stated goal of boosting every child to proficiency in math and reading seem remotely in sight: not when tests can be dumbed down and results manipulated.

Couldn't we, in consequence, as children used to say on the playground swing, just "let the cat die" -- let NCLB just go away? Not with the political appetite for top-down control continuing to build under Obama. We're not about to try not letting the federal government try anymore. We're getting ready, if the administration has its way, to devise better top-down methods.

Can such methods work? The health care fracas should have given us some sense of how many obstacles stand in the way of getting one top-down program just right for the needs of 300 million-plus Americans. Even with T-shirts, one size never fits all. As government says, shut up and put the thing on anyway, doubts rightly multiply as to the possibility of even Harvard Law School graduates' figuring out what the rest of us need.

Time was when the states, which theoretically own the public schools and theoretically scratch statewide educational itches, addressed on their own the requirements of educational excellence. Then, starting in 1965 with the Great Society, came the era of federal "aid" and No Child Left Behind. Former President Bush's own state of Texas could no longer do what it wanted, having drunk with everyone else the Kool-Aid of top-downism.

Most of the Founding Fathers would gaze in horror at the idea of the central government's telling states how to run their schools, but no one today seems much to care for what a bunch of dead white men in wigs would have thought. Not with all that money rolling in from Washington!

I predict that on the dreadful day of judgment, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, the U.S. government will still be focused on how to get a handle on the problem of education quality and how to make sure, by gum, everybody gets the same share, whatever it costs.

The founders, being wiser, knew that Big Government was less likely to make things happen than were ordinary people, plugged into their own understandings of means and ends. The necessity of strengthening communities and families to encourage motivation and performance -- what White House adviser would think of such a thing? I can certainly think of a few who should.