Waiting for real education reform

George Will

1/7/2002 12:00:00 AM - George Will
WASHINGTON--With an energy that, were he a third-grader, would earn him a megadose of Ritalin, President Bush this week will hopscotch from Ohio to Massachusetts to New Hampshire to Constitution Hall here for ceremonies celebrating the No Child Left Behind Act. The moveable feast will wildly exaggerate the act's importance to primary and secondary education. Its most important provisions are prerequisites for meaningful school choice, eventually. Information, generated by testing, is necessary for a market in which parents can, as comparison shoppers, hold schools accountable. Under the act, all children will be tested in math and reading every year from third through eighth grades. Students in schools that fail egregiously and protractedly will be empowered to choose other schools--but only other public schools in the same school district. Because failing schools frequently are in failing districts, the act's ``choice'' provisions are derisory. Federal education legislation is rarely edifying. In 1994 the Senate, enacting the ``Goals 2000'' education bill, issued, as is its wont, imperious commands to the future. Only two goals were quantifiable: By 2000, America's high-school graduation rate would be ``at least 90 percent'' and students ``will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.'' Sen. Pat Moynihan, comparing these goals to Soviet grain production quotas, said: ``That will not happen.'' And of course it did not. In 2000 the graduation rate was about 75 percent, a figure inflated by ``social promotions.'' The widely cited 86 percent figure included former high school students who pass ``equivalency examinations,'' which are not equivalent to graduating from high school. American students ranked 19th among 38 surveyed nations in mathematics (right below Latvia) and 18th in science (right below Bulgaria). In 2000 the top five states in average SAT scores (with their ranking among the states and the District of Columbia in per-pupil spending) were: 1. North Dakota (41) 2. Iowa (25) 3. Wisconsin (10) 4. Minnesota (16) 5. South Dakota (48) The bottom five were: 47. Texas (35) 48. North Carolina (38) 49. District of Columbia (4) 50. Georgia (31) 51. South Carolina (36) Moynihan, being droll in order to be didactic, concluded that the best predictor of a school's performance must be its proximity to the Canadian border. He knew that ever since the baby boom generation began moving through the school system like a pig through a python, policy-makers have assumed that schools' cognitive outputs would vary directly with financial inputs to the schools. He also knew that by 1966 an ambitious government study had reached a conclusion so discomfiting the government considered not releasing it: ``Schools are remarkably similar in the effect they have on the achievement of their pupils when the socioeconomic background of the students is taken into account.'' Meaning: The crucial predictor of a school's performance is the quality of the children's families. Granted, many schools are heroic exceptions to this rule. Nevertheless, it is the rule. A decade ago Paul Barton, then with the Educational Testing Service, estimated that about 90 percent of the difference among the average proficiency of the various states' schools could be explained by five factors: number of days absent from school, number of hours spent watching television, number of pages read for homework, quantity and quality of reading material in the home and the presence of two parents in the home. That fifth factor is supremely important, not least because it is apt decisively to influence the other four. When Barton wrote his study, ``America's Smallest School: The Family,'' North Dakota ranked first in math scores and second in the percentage of children in two-parent families. The District of Columbia ranked next to last in math scores and last in the family composition scale. Family decomposition should dampen this week's self-congratulatory focus on the latest education legislation. In 1958 the percentage of children born to unmarried women was 5; in 1969, 10; in 1980, 18; in 1999, 33. The especially chilling number: in 1999 almost half (48.4 percent) of all children born to women ages 20-24--women of all races and ethnicities--were born out of wedlock. The importance of that for American education is in the 9/91 factor: Between birth and their 19th birthdays, American children spend 9 percent of their time in school, 91 percent elsewhere. The fate of American education is being shaped not by legislative acts, but by the fact that, increasingly, ``elsewhere'' is not in an intact family.