WASHINGTON -- Doubling down on dubious bets is characteristic of compulsive gamblers and federal education policy. The nation was essentially without such policy for grades K through 12, and better off for that, until 1965. In that year of liberals living exuberantly, they produced the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Now yet another president has announced yet another plan to fix education. His aspiration has a discouraging pedigree.
In 1983, three years after Jimmy Carter paid his debt to teachers' unions by creating the Education Department, a national commission declared America "a nation at risk": "If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war." So in 1984, Ronald Reagan decreed improvements.
They did not materialize, so in 1994 Congress decreed that by 2000 the high school graduation rate would be "at least" 90 percent and students would be "first in the world in mathematics and science achievement." Even inflated by "social promotions," the graduation rate in 2000 was about 75 percent (it peaked at 77.1 in 1969), and among 38 nations surveyed, Americans ranked 19th in mathematics, just below Latvians, and 18th in science, just below Bulgarians.
So, eschewing "the soft bigotry of low expectations," in 2001 President George W. Bush undertook the loopy idealism of preposterous expectations. No Child Left Behind decreed that by 2014 there will be universal -- yes, 100 percent -- "proficiency" in reading and math. That will happen if enough states do what many have done -- define proficiency down. NCLB gives states an incentive to report chimerical progress, so, unsurprisingly, state tests almost always indicate much more progress than does the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal test.
Obama understands that NCLB has perverse incentives. If we must continue the mistake of increasing federal supervision of primary and secondary education, Washington should at least reverse what NCLB does.
Washington should set national standards and measurements and leave states free to choose how to meet them.