Monday, July 23, 2012

What have we gained from nearly 50 years of federal intervention in public education?

This just came across my Twitter feed: U.S. Schools Showing Little Improvement via @ChoiceMediaTV. UPI writer Marcella S. Kreiter notes that:

The state of U.S. public education has been a whipping boy for decades with various schemes -- charter schools, vouchers, incentives for both students and teachers -- having little effect on overall performance.

It's interesting that a number of U.S. presidents have attempted to claim the mantle of the "education president" ever since the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act promised to level the playing field. Much to our collective dismay, none of the "huff and puff" has appeared to make any earth-shaking difference.

Kreiter goes on to quote one of the author's of the study as claiming, "Part of the problem...are unrealistic, ill-defined goals with no clear path to getting there. He cited, as an example, a 1990 pronouncement by President George H.W. Bush and the nation's governors setting a goal of making U.S. students 'first in the world in math and science by 2000.' Clearly, that didn't happen."

One of these days, we're going to finally admit that the federal government can do little to force change in thousands of schools across fifty different states. The evidence is nearly fifty years of federal intervention, yet little has improved. So why do we keep funding a federal program that has proven beyond a doubt across nine different presidential administrations that is does not work.

Is it really just bravado from the top and the quest to be the number one "education president?" Perhaps so. To satisfy my curiosity, I did a quick search of the internet to see what others have to say about our so-called "education presidents." Larry Cuban was quoted last fall in a Washington Post blog about who has been the best "education president." What he had to say makes perfect sense:
"FACT 1: Under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the federal role in schooling had expanded dramatically since 1965 with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), particularly Title I. No Child Left Behind (2002) is the latest of the federal reauthorizations of ESEA.

"FACT 2: ESEA focused national attention and took action for the first time on the connection between poverty and low academic achievement. Education was a key component of LBJ's "War on Poverty." His administration initiated Head Start, Upward Bound, the Job Corps and dozens of other efforts in the late-1960s.

"FACT 3: Presidents Ronald Reagan, H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have converted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of the Great Society from a poverty-based federal "entitlement"program (mainly through Title 1) into a standards-based accountability program that expanded testing and established rules for acceptable academic performance touching every one of the 14,000-plus school districts that received federal dollars. No longer a poverty-reduction effort, ESEA is now a testing and regulatory machine that identifies and punishes failing schools.

"FACT 4: As a federal regulatory machine to raise academic achievement and end the gap in test scores between poor and non-poor children, it has failed. That failure is because the expanded federal role had to rely on a state and local infrastructure that was unable to reverse the persistent failure of schools to reduce either poverty or inequality in distribution of wealth. State and local districts lacked a coherent curriculum, a technical capability for assessment, and well-trained teachers. Moreover, the federal government contributed less than a dime out of every dollar spent on schools and states perpetuated a funding scheme that gave fewer resources to the most needy students.
Notice that the primary premise as to why the federal government ramped up its involvement in public education -- to level the playing field and provide equity for kids and schools in impoverished communities. Ever since, all of the research continues to point to poverty as the number one obstacle to substantially raising student achievement across the entire economic spectrum, yet neither the federal government nor the states, which have the primary responsibility for public education in the first place, has advanced this cause to any level of significance.

If the federal government insists on playing a leadership role, then so be it although I do not believe it will ever be successful. In the meantime, we're still waiting for the "education president."