Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Joe’s Take: Trust Me

A new ad by Apple has the now familiar Mac and PC boys bickering about the reliability of Windows 7. This version will live up to the hype, touts PC, “Trust me.” The claim, however, rings hollow once we learn that similar promises accompanied a string of previous products -- all falling short of expectations.

Like computer operating systems, efforts at education reform also leave a lot to be desired. The most recent national test results in math have prompted debate about whether the assessment and accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act are having their intended effect on student achievement. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that the gains fourth-graders had been making since 1990 have stalled, while eighth-graders continue to make only modest progress (see related story).

Against this backdrop, students in religious and independent schools, which are not subject to NCLB, show significant performance advantages over students enrolled in the public option: a 7-point advantage in grade 4, and 14 points in grade 8. (Since 10 points on the NAEP scale is equal to about a full grade level, a 14-point difference is substantial.) Also, the black/white achievement gap is narrower in private schools.

In the past five decades, we’ve seen the following major efforts at education reform, all more or less sold by Washington to the American public with the claim “trust me”:
Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965)
Education Consolidation and Improvement Act (1981)
Improving America's Schools Act (1994)
Goals 2000: The Educate America Act (1994), through which every child was supposed to demonstrate mastery of challenging subject matter by the year 2000
No Child Left Behind Act (2001), through which every child is supposed to perform at the proficient level by the year 2014

With NCLB apparently not doing everything it was supposed to do, Education Secretary Duncan is now calling for new reforms -- in his words, “reforms that will accelerate student achievement.” But because past efforts have fallen short of expectations, the secretary will have a tough time conveying the message that this version will be different. Something convincing is needed. “Trust me” will not cut it.

Since NAEP first started measuring achievement, students in religious and independent schools have consistently and substantially outperformed students in government-run schools. Many factors may be involved, but the achievement advantage alone suggests that one convincing reform the secretary should consider is simply to allow more parents to select schools with a proven record of performance. Parents tend to know what’s best for their children. Trust them.