Schansberg: NCLB and Common Core to the Rescue?

March 12, 2015

by Eric Schansberg, Ph.D.

The most recent issue of The Indiana Policy Review, Dr. Maryann O. Keating describes the priorities of the key “stakeholders” in K-12 education: a) parents and children; b) the general public, including future employers; and c) providers of educational services, including school teachers and staff (public, private or for-profit), testing services and textbook publishers.

Dr. Keating leads us into a discussion of recent reform — most notably “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) and Common Core. It’s noteworthy that the reforms have been largely bipartisan. This tells us that the status quo was — and still is — broadly viewed as ineffective, and it indicates that the reforms have had strong intuitive appeal.

In the past, spending more money seemed like an obvious strategy. Now, however, it is patently obvious that this has been ineffective. (Nationally, we spend more than $12,000 per student—more than $300,000 per classroom of 25 students.)

Is the emphasis on testing in NCLB based on more reliable intuition? Testing can certainly be a useful method for assessment, teaching and learning. But scratching just below the surface, there are obvious reasons for concern. Standardized testing is imperfect and not completely objective. Effective testing is costly to construct. And any testing takes time away from teaching content.

If rewards and penalties are involved with test results, there is an incentive to “teach to the test,” sacrificing learning in the pursuit of better test scores. And if test performance is judged as pass/fail, students at that margin will probably receive disproportionate attention, because their performance becomes key to how a school will be assessed.

If we connect test scores to school funding, how do you reward and penalize effectively and equitably? If you pay for success, then poorly-performing schools will receive less money, making it more difficult to improve. If you give them more money, then you necessarily incentivize schools to under-perform. (Similar problems arise with connecting test scores to teacher pay.)

Dr. Keating also notes the “race to the bottom” stirred by the incentives inherent in NCLB. The hope is that testing is an objective and accurate manner to judge learning against objective and accurate performance standards. But in practice, standards can fade through easier tests and lower score thresholds for “success.” Keating describes all of this as “unintended and unanticipated.”

Yes and no. Nobody intends these consequences, but it’s easy to anticipate these consequences. (In fact, we covered this topic for years in the first Econ course at Indiana University Southeast.) One might be surprised by the size of the consequences but only sloppy policy analysis could lead one to be surprised by the existence of these consequences.

Since NCLB didn’t seem to be helpful, and given concerns about fading standards, the government has established national standards (Common Core) and subsidized a “race to the top.” But can this approach be reasonably expected to work? Perhaps we should anticipate a similar article from Dr. Keating a decade from now — on the “unintended and unanticipated” consequences of the latest faddish education reform.

Let’s speak to root issues. Arguably, the top problem in education is social: problems with family structure and stability. But we live in a context in which government encourages broken homes through welfare policies. In any case, fixing this problem through public policy is somewhere between difficult and impossible. So, what’s the best we can do, given those constraints?

At present, we rely on government-run schools to deliver most K-12 educational services. And for parents in the lower- and middle-income classes, government schools have tremendous monopoly power over “consumers.” It seems odd to have faith in government-run monopolies but those with this faith must explain why the current system is not working well and why reforms like NCLB and Common Core should be effective.

Another consideration: As Dr. Keating notes, “good education . . . evolves from give and take, success and failure.” But again, this is less likely with monopolies and the government, particularly the federal government.

Research shows that great teachers can make a huge difference, but it is difficult to measure what makes a great or even a good teacher. As with NCLB, any performance-pay system will lead to some perverse incentives.

In all of this, should we try to regulate a monopoly — or just let schools and consumers figure all of this out through competition? In most contexts, we rely on markets. We don’t set up a government-run monopoly to distribute food or veterinary care — and then try to regulate that monopoly to be effective.

Many policy options would provide more competition in K-12 education. We can encourage charter schools (public schools with less funding but more autonomy), educational vouchers (equivalent to food stamps to feed people) or “backpack” funding (in which funding follows students to the school of their choice). None of these are panaceas, but they increase competition and invite the market to do what markets generally do — provide choices with effective results, delivered with efficiency.

Dr. Eric Schansberg, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast.

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