Fifty costly years of failure to fix education

By Larry Sand
May 7, 2019

Research shows that technocratic reforms have made no difference in alleviating the achievement gap.

A new study by Eric Hanushek et al. for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) shows that all the top-down fixes – No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, etc. – piled on by the education industrial complex have been absolutely useless in shrinking the achievement gap between students from higher and lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The disparity remains as large as it was in 1966, when James Coleman wrote his landmark report and “the nation launched a ‘war on poverty’ that made compensatory education its centerpiece.”

According to the study, school funding quadrupled in real dollars between 1960 and 2015, with a large portion of the money used to reduce pupil-teacher ratios – a school board and teacher union staple. But the researchers conclude that the increased spending has done nothing to lower the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test that measures 15-year-old students’ reading, mathematics, and science literacy across the world, reveals more bad news. As AEI’s Rick Hess recently wrote, “From the time PISA was first administered in 2000 to the most recent results from 2015, U.S. scores have actually declined.” Our reading scores went from 504 to 497, and average math scores are also down, from 483 to 470. During that time period, federal education spending almost tripled.

So what is the reaction of the education establishment to the ongoing gap? Throw even more money at it. Unionized teachers have been striking all over the country for increased funding and smaller class sizes. It seems that no matter how much we spend, the unions are forever demanding more and more be poured into education, and frequently school boards are all too eager to comply.

The time has come to just say, “No!” We must stop feeding the beast and take a different approach. What we actually need are different approaches. Washington needs to get out of the ed business altogether, as do the teachers unions. (I can dream right?) Second best is to do an end run around the edu-blob and establish local school choice measures all over the country. Parents need to be given more power and schools should be held accountable to them, the customers, not some government bureaucrat or teacher union boss.

Of course, the resistance is fierce to such an idea. Typical is a recent editorial in the Des Moines Register, which hits on all the main traditionalist talking points. “‘School choice’ is GOP attempt to siphon tax dollars from public education.” In Florida, one of our “choiciest” states, an editorial in the Tampa Bay Times asserts that the expansion of existing privatization measures are “The death sentence for Florida’s public schools.” In West Virginia teachers struck in February, mostly to kill several school choice bills. Sadly, the legislature caved to the monopolists in the Mountain State. In Oklahoma, two alleged academics released a screed that slammed privatization, using all the usual erroneous allegations – they lead to segregation, hurt public education, are not accountable, etc.

For a dose of reality, however, we look to researcher Greg Forster who writes that ten empirical studies have examined private school choice programs on segregation and nine found the programs reduced it, while one found no visible difference. Also, Forster writes that out of 34 empirical studies, 32 find that private-school choice actually improves academic outcomes in public schools. One study showed no difference and one did show that government-run education was hurt by privatization. But I’ll take 32 to one any day.

The lack-of-accountability allegation is especially rich, considering the results of the NBER study. Is your local, privately-owned, non-government-run supermarket “accountable?” Of course it is. It must sell you quality goods at a reasonable price, and comply with truth-in-labeling laws, or you will take your food dollars elsewhere. Why should education be any different? Time to get the government and their union cronies out of the ed business – as much as is reasonably possible – and parental choice provides the path to do so.

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Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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