Federal Alphabet Soup Won't Fix Schools

By Andrew J. Coulson

President Bush signed the bi-partisan America COMPETES act on August 9th, with the acronymic goal of Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science. Come September, Congress will debate reauthorization of the 5-year-old No Child Left Behind act, or NCLB, which aimed to improve math and reading performance. But before our federal representatives serve up another acronym-laden education program, Americans might want to signal for the waiter, because there's a fly in Washington's alphabet soup: these programs will not, indeed cannot, fix our schools.

The problem is best demonstrated by the America COMPETES act, which was inspired by the National Science Foundation report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." The NSF observed that "a substantial portion of our workforce finds itself in direct competition for jobs with lower-wage workers around the globe," and argued that this intensifying competition from abroad now compels us to improve our schools.

Given its pedigree, not to mention its name, you might think that America COMPETES would actually promote competition among schools - harnessing on the domestic stage the very same forces that the law touts on the international stage. It does no such thing. Instead, it simply throws more money at the existing system, which, thanks to its monopoly on education tax-funding, is protected against competition from independent schools. In other words, the America COMPETES act does not remotely live up to its name.

It does, however, conform to a popular definition of insanity - it repeats the mistakes of an earlier program, the National Defense Education Act of 1958, while expecting different results. The NDEA was enacted for much the same reason as America COMPETES; fear of foreign competition. In the wake of the Soviet launch of the satellite Sputnik, Congress feared the U.S. had fallen behind in math, science and technology. Its response, then as now, was to ignore %%AMAZON=1933995041 the merits of competition and parental choice in education%% and to instead throw money at the public school monopoly in an effort to improve its curricula and teaching methods. The materials and programs funded by NDEA grants were adopted only slowly and unevenly, and their quality was dubious.

The results were inevitable. According to the Long Term Trends report of the National Assessment of Educational Progress ("the Nation's Report Card"), science achievement among American 17-year-olds fell significantly between 1969 (the first year of the test) and 1999 (the most recent). Though mathematics trend scores for younger students show signs of improvement over the past thirty years, those improvements evaporate by the end of high school. The math scores of 17-year-olds are essentially unchanged. This educational stagnation and decline, remember, came over a period during which real annual per-pupil spending in public schools doubled (to over $11,000 today), the personal computer was invented and fantastically improved, and the Internet ushered in previously undreamed of educational possibilities.

As if to tacitly acknowledge the futility of America COMPETES and other federal education programs, the U.S. Department of Education has quietly withdrawn from a test scheduled for next year that will compare the advanced math and science knowledge of top students internationally. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2008 will be the latest installment in a series dating back to the 1970s, which has revealed an alarming trend: the longer U.S. students stay in school, the further they fall behind their peers in other countries. We score near the average of industrialized nations at the 4th grade, somewhat below it by the 9th grade, and are at or near the bottom of the heap by the end of high school. [pdf]

Mark Schneider, commissioner for the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, has cited cost as the main reason for withdrawing from the test, which would tip the financial scales at between $3 and $10 million according to John Ewing of the American Mathematical Society. The America COMPETES act, meanwhile, authorizes $43.6 billion in expenditures. How many times does $10 million go into $43.6 billion? You do the math....

Which brings us to No Child Left Behind, a law intended to improve overall performance in both math and reading, and to reduce achievement gaps between racial and socio-economic groups. It was supposed to accomplish those aims mainly by encouraging public school systems to test more students more often, and by increasing the number of teachers with state certification in the subjects they teach. Though early NCLB proposals made a fair bit of noise about promoting competition and parental choice, nothing of substance in these areas made it into the final legislation.

So how has No Child turned out? According to the most thorough analysis of its effects to date, published by Harvard University, "NCLB does not appear to have had a significant impact on improving reading or math achievement.... [and] does not seem to have helped the nation and states significantly narrow the achievement gap."

Just as with the NDEA, we should not be surprised by these results. Measures like NCLB, America COMPETES, and their fellow alphabetic travelers are the education policy analogues of perestroika -- Mikhail Gorbachev's attempt to "fix" Soviet socialism by tinkering around its edges. Gorbachev's efforts failed, it is now widely acknowledged, because they omitted certain crucial elements of free markets: prices that are determined by supply and demand instead of by central planners, private instead of state ownership of enterprises - that sort of thing. America's public school monopolies are like socialist economies in small; centrally planned, uncompetitive, state-owned. Just as Gorbachev's piece-meal reforms couldn't fix his system, neither can such half-measures fix ours.

If Americans want their children genuinely prepared to compete in the world economy, they will have to demand that their schools - public and private - be forced to compete on a free and level playing field for the privilege of serving them. And they would be wise to stay away from the alphabet soup.

Andrew J. Coulson is Director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom, and co-author of the forthcoming paper "End it Don't Mend it: What to do With NCLB." He blogs at Cato-at-liberty.org