Students’ test scores unchanged after decades of federal intervention in education

By Lindsey Burke | The Daily Signal

Federal “Highly Qualified Teacher” mandates. Adequate Yearly Progress requirements. Smaller learning communities. Improving Teacher Quality State Grants. Reading First. Early Reading First. The dozens of other federal programs authorized via No Child Left Behind. School Improvement Grants. Race to the Top. Common Core.

All of that has been just since 2000. Over those past two decades, while federal policymakers were busy enacting new federal laws, creating mandates for local school leaders, and increasing the Department of Education’s budget from $38 billion in 2000 (unadjusted for inflation) to roughly $70 billion today, the math and reading performance of American high school students remained completely flat. That is to say, stagnant.

The U.S. is now above the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average in reading, but alas, not because U.S. reading performance has improved. Rather, other countries have seen declines in reading achievement, despite increases in education spending.

In mathematics, however, U.S. performance has steadily declined over the past two decades.

Those are the findings from the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA exams, released last week.

As The New York Times’ Dana Goldstein reported:

About a fifth of American 15-year-olds scored so low on the PISA test that it appeared they had not mastered reading skills expected of a 10-year-old, according to Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers the exam.

What’s more, the achievement gap between high- and low-performing American students has widened.

The international findings mirror last month’s National Assessment of Educational Progress report, which revealed that math and reading scores across the country have continued a yearslong stagnation, with students largely showing no progress in academic achievement.

Just one-third of students in the fourth and eighth grades reached proficiency in math and reading nationally on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is administered every two years.

As with the Programme for International Student Assessment’s findings that the achievement gap stubbornly persists for American students, the National Assessment of Educational Progress highlighted similar findings within the U.S.

The scores of students who are among the lowest 10% of performers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have dropped significantly since 2009.

The stubborn achievement gap is not new, but the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Programme for International Student Assessment provide additional data points on its persistence.

As Harvard professor Paul Peterson writes in The Heritage Foundation’s new book “The Not-So-Great Society”:

The achievement gap in the United States is as wide today as it was in 1971.

The performances on math, reading, and science tests between the most advantaged and the most disadvantaged students differ by approximately four years’ worth of learning, a disparity that has remained essentially unchanged for nearly half a century.

One of the more recent, major pieces of federal intervention sold as a way to improve American standing in education was the Common Core State Standards Initiative promoted during the Obama administration.

Common Core national standards and test, proponents argued, would catapult American students to the top of the math and reading pack. It was time, they argued, for the U.S. to have the same “epiphany” Germany did in the late 1990s, and adopt centrally planned national standards and tests.

Germany now lags the U.S. in reading, according to the new Programme for International Student Assessment data, and is far below Canada, a country that does not have national standards.

Indeed, our neighbor to the north has performed consistently well on the Programme for International Student Assessment since 2000, significantly outpacing the United States, and has neither national standards, nor a federal education department.

Canada’s is a decentralized education system, in which Canada’s 10 provinces set education policy.

The fact that Common Core didn’t catalyze improvements in the U.S. isn’t surprising. Large-scale government programs rarely, if ever, do.

But neither have the myriad federal programs created since No Child Left Behind in 2001, nor have the more than 100 federal K-12 education programs created since President Lyndon Johnson launched his Great Society initiative in 1965 designed, ostensibly, to narrow opportunity gaps between the poor and the affluent.

Heritage’s Jonathan Butcher and I detail Yuval Levin’s theory of government failure in “The Not-So-Great Society.” Levin explains that large-scale government programs fail for three reasons:

  1. “Institutionally, the administrative state is ‘dismally inefficient and unresponsive, and therefore ill-suited to our age of endless choice and variety.’”
  2. “Culturally and morally, government efforts to ‘rescue the citizen from the burdens of responsibility [have] undermined the family, self-reliance, and self-government.’”
  3. “Fiscally, large-scale federal programs supporting the welfare state are simply unaffordable, ‘dependent as it is upon dubious economics and the demographic model of a bygone era.’”

Federal government efforts to improve education have been dismal. Even if there were a constitutional basis for its involvement — which there isn’t — the federal government is simply ill-positioned to determine what education policies will best serve the diverse local communities across our vast nation.

The sooner we can acknowledge that improvements will not come from Washington, the sooner we’re likely to see students flourishing in learning environments that reflect their unique needs and desires.

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8 thoughts on “Students’ test scores unchanged after decades of federal intervention in education

  1. For every $1,000,000 the Feds offer (of our money) there comes$2,000,000 in mandates, which requires
    $3,000,000 in new bureaucractic employees. How many “Titles” can there be – no one knows!

    Teachers are vastly outnumbered – by the Education Blob of today telling every teacher what they must do, how many records to compile, how many ‘extras” in the classroom to supervise, “individual” plans for each pair of eyes.

    Teachers – Yeah!
    Education Blob – Nay!!.

  2. Let the teachers teach but hold administrators strictly accountable for their performance. Allow parents to choose schools and legalize students to carry their tuition. The free marketplace will then settle the current educational problems, and improve everyone’s performance, more quickly than you can imagine. Without enacting these changes we will only be practicing insanity as defined by Albert Einstein. Currently, the only school choice Vermont parents have is to choose one in another state.

  3. I’ve never seen a study on it, but I’ve wondered if the decline in public school performance coincided with the closing of Catholic schools that demanded performance from students and set a benchmark for public schools. — There are still some Catholic high schools operating today with student populations that come from families where 90% live under the poverty line, and yet they graduate 98+% of their students and they all go on to college. So there is a connection with discipline and the work they demand from students.

  4. Germany adopted centrally planned national standards and tests in the late nineties? I thought they had it in the thirties! They even had educational government summer camps. The Germans are notorious for keeping copious records of everything – how well did that work out? ¶Just a thought – not a proposal: The overwhelming popularity of challenging electronic games suggests there’s an exploitable competitive nature inherent in many youth. Apply it to school, at the same time giving the students the power to control their own destiny like the challenge they face in the games. To make higher education affordable to anyone with the capacity to benefit from it, how about assigning credit from day one of school – a point for every day of appearance just for being there, points deducted (by an independent “court”) for class disruption, multipliers for high grades. Options for acceptance to advanced classes or preferred schools can be earned like points in a game: Work hard, you get to select a school from a wider number of options. Graduate from high school, accumulated points can assist in college costs or free attendance in state colleges, making higher education available to the poorest student through their own educational efforts. Points can pay for post graduate trade schools for career choice from architecture to hairdressing, circus clown to zeppelin pilot.

  5. I say let the teachers teach, hands off federal government and states!! Good quality, non bias teacher evaluations with the goal to help teachers would be very effective too!! The spread in scores between rich and poor, I blame on parental support and individual effort! Just because one is poor does not mean they cannot learn!

    • How can anyone blame parents when the public school monopoly does everything it can to stifle parental input? Yes, let the teachers teach…and let parents choose the teachers they feel best meet the needs of their children.

  6. Is anyone surprised? As President Reagan often said” the scariest eleven words are ‘I am from the government and I’m here to help you.’ I make my case.

  7. That U.S. student outcomes are, at best mediocre, misrepresents the tangible value of certain Federal education mandates. Specifically, were it not for No Child Left Behind, we wouldn’t know how poorly the public education monopoly is serving our children.

    If there’s a take-away, it’s that governments at all levels, from local school and Supervisory Unions, to the State’s take-over from those local boards, to Federal mandates, …are ineffective.

    So, what is effective? Parental School Choice. Just do it.

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