George Will

WASHINGTON -- No Child Left Behind, supposedly an antidote to the "soft bigotry of low expectations," has instead spawned lowered standards.

The law will eventually be reauthorized because doubling down on losing bets is what Washington does. But because NCLB contains incentives for perverse behavior, reauthorization should include legislation empowering states to ignore it.

NCLB was passed in 2001 as an extension of the original mistake, President Lyndon Johnson's Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which became law in the year of liberals living exuberantly -- 1965, when Great Society excesses sowed the seeds of conservatism's subsequent ascendancy.

ESEA was the first large Washington intrusion into education K through 12.

NCLB was supported by Republicans reluctant to vastly expand that intrusion but even more reluctant to oppose a new president's signature issue. This expansion of Washington's role in the quintessential state and local responsibility was problematic, for three reasons.

First, most new ideas are dubious, so federalization of policy increases the probability of continentwide mistakes. Second, education is susceptible to pedagogic fads and social engineering fantasies -- schools of education incubate them -- so it is prone to producing continental regrets. Third, America always is more likely to have a few wise state governments than a wise federal government.

With mandated data collections -- particularly tests of "adequate yearly progress" in reading and math -- NCLB was supposed to generate information that would enable schools to be held accountable for cognitive outputs commensurate with federal financial inputs. Bad data would make schools blush and reform.

Fourteen months ago, the president said, "The gap is closing. ... How do we know? Because we're measuring." But about those measurements ...

NCLB requires states to identify, by criteria they devise, "persistently dangerous schools." But what state wants that embarrassment?

The Washington Post recently reported that last year, of America's approximately 94,000 public schools, the "persistently dangerous" numbered 46. There were none among the 9,000 schools in amazingly tranquil California.

NCLB's crucial provisions concern testing to measure yearly progress toward the goal of "universal proficiency" in math and reading by 2014.

This goal is America's version of Soviet grain quotas, solemnly avowed but not seriously constraining. Most states retain the low standards they had before; some have defined proficiency down.

So says "The Proficiency Illusion," a report from the Thomas B.

Fordham Institute, which studies education reform. Its findings include:

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
TOWNHALL DAILY: Be the first to read George Will's column. Sign up today and receive daily lineup delivered each morning to your inbox.