Steve Chapman

I can't pinpoint the moment when the Obama administration went wrong on the subject of education. But I can pinpoint the moment when it demonstrated that it can't be taken seriously.

It happened on Monday, March 15, when Education Secretary Arne Duncan was expounding to reporters about revising the No Child Left Behind law. The new policy, he asserted, "is going to revolutionize education in our country."

No, it's not. We have been at the task of education for a long time, and one thing we have learned is that you cannot revolutionize it. The American system of schooling is vast, complicated, self-protective, slow to change and even slower to improve.

On these points, No Child Left Behind leaves no doubt. It was inaugurated with grand promises eight years ago. "As of this hour, America's schools will be on a new path of reform, and a new path of results," exulted President George W. Bush upon signing it.

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For the first time, the federal government demanded that states create and enforce standards, hold educators accountable and make prescribed changes. It seemed to hold great potential.

But the potential has gone unfulfilled. In the first five years, there were small gains in reading proficiency among 4th-graders, but the gains were larger in the five years before that. Likewise with math.

Among 8th-graders, there was no change in reading performance. Math scores rose a little, but less rapidly than they had been rising. Nor have minority students improved more than before.

High school students also have nothing to brag about. A 2008 report from the National Center for Education Statistics found that among 17-year-olds, performance in math and reading is worse now than it was in the 1990s and no better than in 1973.

If you didn't know NCLB had become law in 2002, you would not guess it from looking at the trends in student performance. We were mediocre then, and we're mediocre now.

Hoover Institution scholar John Chubb, in his book "Learning from No Child Left Behind," laments that "only a third of American young people are demonstrating mastery of the knowledge and skills that education experts believe appropriate for their respective grade levels." In some countries, two-thirds of kids meet that standard.

The common complaint among liberal critics is that Washington imposed new rules without supplying the needed funds. But between 2001 and 2008, federal education spending jumped by 72 percent.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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