- OPINION, NOVEMBER 28, 2010, 7:23 P.M. ET
Now that Republicans have regained control of the House of Representatives, they must take a stand in the battle for control of American education. The issue today is between those who want to federalize education policy and those who want to maintain state and local control of the public schools.
Historically, the GOP has always been the party of local control, and for most of the 20th century Republicans opposed almost every effort by Democrats to expand the power of the federal government over the nation’s public classrooms.
In 1965, when Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Republicans worried that it was the start of intrusive federal mandates. In time, though, they accepted that there is a legitimate federal role in providing extra funding for needy students, ensuring educational opportunity for children with disabilities, protecting students’ civil rights, gathering accurate data, and sponsoring research.
Today, however, the federal government has ballooned into the all-powerful education behemoth that the GOP long feared. Ironically, the trouble started as a result of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. It has saddled the nation’s public schools with a regime of testing and sanctions that is burdensome, harmful and ineffective.
NCLB decreed that all students, in all states, must be proficient on state tests in reading and mathematics by 2014—a goal no state is even close to meeting. As the deadline draws nearer, schools that are central to their communities are being closed or forced to fire their staff because of NCLB requirements. The local leadership may have better ideas, but the federal government demands punishments.
President Obama’s Race to the Top fund extends federal control well beyond NCLB. Last year, as part of the economic stimulus plan, Congress gave the Department of Education an unprecedented $5 billion in discretionary funds to promote educational reform. The Obama administration used the money to promote unproven strategies.
To qualify for Race to the Top money, states and districts were expected to evaluate their teachers by using student test scores, even though research consistently warns of the flaws of this method. Similarly, the Obama administration is pressing states and districts to replace low-performing regular public schools with privately managed charter schools, even though research demonstrates that charters don’t, on average, get better academic results than regular public schools.
The present course is virtually the opposite of what high-performing nations do. Countries like Finland, Japan and South Korea have improved their schools by offering a rich and broad curriculum in the arts and sciences, not by focusing only on testing basic skills, as we do. These nations have succeeded by recruiting, training and supporting good teachers, and giving continuing help to those that need it. The Obama administration, by contrast, has disregarded the importance of retention and improvement of teachers, while encouraging an influx of non-professionals into the field.
The Education Department, for example, recently awarded Teach for America $50 million to scale up its recruitment of smart college graduates who agree to teach for two years. The organization now offers five weeks of training to about 8,000 prospective teachers each year. While such a program is admirable, it doesn’t help to replace the 300,000 teachers who retire or leave the profession annually. The teaching profession needs large numbers of well-prepared, experienced professionals, not constant turnover.
Many members of Congress were once members of local school boards. They understand that their public schools are the heart of their community and that local problems are best addressed by local solutions.
National curriculum standards may help, if they are validated. But the ones promoted by this administration were not implemented anywhere before they were foisted on 40 states by state legislatures competing for federal dollars. Massachusetts, the highest-achieving state in the nation, dropped its own proven standards to adopt the new, unproven ones so as to be eligible for Race to the Top funding.
The question today for Republicans is whether they are a party that endorses top-down reform from Washington, D.C., or a party that respects the common sense of the people back home and their commitment to their local public schools.
Ms. Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education in charge of research in the George H.W. Bush administration, is a research professor of education at NYU.