Steve Chapman

In short, we launched an unprecedented and expensive effort to improve schools and help students -- and it didn't work.

One problem is that the states that were serious about raising performance didn't need the law, and those that were not serious were able to evade or frustrate it. Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, has explained, "While it's hard to force recalcitrant states and districts to do things they don't want to do, it's impossible to force them to do those things well."

Nor is it clear it would help if they did. Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor who was an education official under the first President Bush and a former NCLB enthusiast, finds no evidence that the remedies that failing schools must adopt actually work in practice.

As she notes in her new book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," few parents have taken advantage of the opportunity provided under NCLB to escape bad schools. Few students have leapt at the chance to get free after-school tutoring. Few failing schools have been able to turn around.

Obama's "Race to the Top" plan is a new approach, offering competitive grants to states that adopt high standards, improve lousy schools and reward good teachers. It's a fresh, promising idea in a field where fresh, promising ideas go to die.

Like NCLB, the new policy rests on the assumption that the federal government not only knows how to raise student performance but has the tools to induce states and local school districts to make the changes required to help the students in need. But experience indicates all those premises are wrong.

Our leaders have a lot of evidence that a bigger federal role will not produce the desired results, and yet they persist in believing that it will. Not every education failure occurs in a classroom.

Steve Chapman

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

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