Obama wisely proposes broadening the focus beyond reading and math, a constructed emphasis that encourages neglect of science and history. NCLB has deepened the historical amnesia that conservatives deplore, but conservatives should know that national standards for public education will inevitably reflect the public education culture that is a large part of the problem. To imagine the soggy souffle of political correctness that national history standards would be, remember the offensive standards proposed in the mid-1990s and resoundingly rejected by Congress.
Obama would sensibly relax NCLB's severe pass-fail judgments on schools, instead measuring the academic growth of children who, because of family background, start school far behind. And he admirably proposes making more severe the consequences of a school's substantial and protracted failure to produce student progress: A school might have to replace at least half its staff, or even be closed.
But how does one fulfill -- or know when one has fulfilled -- Obama's goal of "college and career readiness" for every child by 2020. That gauzy goal resembles the 1994 goal that by 2000 (when, Congress dreamily decreed, every school "will be free of drugs and violence") every child would start school "ready to learn." Is "college and career readiness" one goal or two?
Should everybody go to college? Is a college degree equivalent to career -- any career? -- readiness?
If such readiness is not measurable, this is another airy puff of legislative cotton candy, similar to NCLB's guarantee that every teacher will be "highly qualified." Qualification measured how? Probably by relying on the redundantly refuted theory that traditional credentialing -- e.g., a degree from an education school -- guarantees competence.
NCLB's emphasis on measuring students' expanding knowledge has improved education policy that until recently was exclusively focused, as the public education lobby preferred, on monetary inputs rather than cognitive outputs. From the time the baby boom generation began going through the school system like a pig through a python, policy, until NCLB, assumed that cognitive outputs varied positively with financial inputs.
Abundant evidence demonstrates that money is not an Archimedean lever for moving the world of education. Inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending tripled over four decades; pupil-teacher ratios were substantially reduced as the number of teachers increased 61 percent while enrollments rose about 10 percent. Yet test scores stagnated or declined.
So, what will government do now to reverse the decline that has pretty much coincided with federal intervention since 1965? Double down.