Education and Federalism

I highly recommend a new TNR essay by Kevin Carey (who also contributed an article on prior learning assessment for the July/August issue of the Washington Monthly) on the failure of No Child Left Behind. Kevin covers a lot of ground in this piece, but what most struck me was his succinct analysis of the fundamental failure in NCLB to impose anything like national standards of what students were expected to learn even as students, schools and school districts were labeled as winners and losers:

NCLB’s concessions to federalism—giving states total discretion to set academic standards—exposed the idiocy of allowing 50 state bureaucracies to make independent judgments about the essential math and reading skills all children must learn. The result was a system where far more students were “passing” state tests in Mississippi than in Massachusetts, even though the the NAEP ranks those states last and first, respectively, in student achievement. The body politic has a high but not infinite tolerance for ridiculousness, and so the vast majority of states are now in the process of adopting a single set of Common Core Standards….

That’s the dilemma of federal education policy. American K-12 schools are highly decentralized in governance, finance, and tradition. Wrestling with such an unruly system can seem Sisyphean. Public education is itself an act of optimism, based on a belief in universal human potential that has been absent from nearly all other places and times. Yet we try to make it better anyway, because of children like Quentin, a student in Highland Park, Michigan who, according to an ACLU lawsuit filed earlier this week, has been promoted to the 7th grade despite the fact that he can’t even spell his own name.

Quentin’s entire public education has occurred since Democrats and Republicans came together 11 years ago to proclaim that such injustices would no longer be tolerated. It didn’t work, and finding a better approach will be damnably hard. But in any society that aspires to decency, there’s no other choice.

Well, actually, there is another choice: giving up, which is what one major party seems to be inclined to do in its alternating inclinations to abolish all federal education assistance or toss it into a private market-place and hope for the best. One hopes that NCLB isn’t the best effort from Democrats, or the last for Republicans.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.