Washington Post on Fed Ed Failure: Right Headline, Wrong Reasoning

The headline to a Washington Post editorial by Lisa Guisbond caught my attention: “New school year: doubling down on failed ed policy.” But I was quickly disappointed.

Guisbond echoed the common complaint that a decade of the federal No Child Left Behind Act focuses too narrowly on testing. Looming national Common Core standards will mean more grades and more subjects tested.

This complaint assumes demonstrating basic, grade-level proficiency in math, reading, and other core subjects is somehow outside public schools’ and teachers’ job description. In my opinion, it’s not. The real problem is that the federal government has no constitutional authority to mandate what or how subjects are taught in schools—regardless of how lucrative its bribes of federal cash for the states may be.

Guisbond’s second and related complaint is against high-stakes testing in general. The pressure to do well has contributed to revelations of widespread cheating that undermines the overall school climate, she claims. Again, there is nothing wrong with demonstrating academic competency before students progress into higher grades or graduate. The bigger “cheating” scandal has been shuffling children along year after year without any accountability for their learning. Such cheating is now exposed to the light of day and perpetrators can be taken to task.

Guisbond actually hinted at the real problem with government-run schooling—be it unconstitutional end-runs by the feds or constitutional but inept state policies—in her first paragraph: “Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt credited his teammate, Jamaican runner Yohan ‘The Beast,’ Blake, with helping him improve by beating him in earlier races. The defeats forced Bolt to reflect on what he needed to do differently to improve. Bolt’s victory modeled a powerful lesson: Always try to learn from your mistakes, rather than repeat them.”

Great metaphor, wrong lesson. Just as top Olympians improve through competition, so do schools—but shielding schools from even mild forms of competition has been the underlying policy failure of American education policies for generations. (Assigning children to schools based on where their parents can afford to live is just one example.)

“To unleash our children’s potential, we need to unleash the full capacity of teachers and schools,” says Guisbond. I couldn’t agree more with one caveat: let parents pick which schools they think will do the best job for their children.

By competing for students, schools would have to hire the best teachers, budget so that they can afford to keep and attract those teachers, and keep bureaucratic overhead to a minimum. Importantly, there would be powerful pressure for all schools to demonstrate their success at educating students with reliable—and ongoing—assessments, and schools would dutifully monitor their competition and adjust accordingly.

Competition nurtures a culture of continuous improvement. Can you imagine an Olympic athlete insisting that he or she be awarded the gold medal by eliminating the competition rather than earning it? Well, we accept this excuse every day from public schools. Just like Olympians, schools should compete for the honor of enrolling parents’ children—and work hard to remain worthy of that honor.

Vicki E, Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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