From a philosophical standpoint, the federal No Child Left Behind Law has been troubling from the beginning. It flies in the face of an American tradition that made education a local matter driven by parents, teachers and administrators with an eye toward local concerns and standards.
And yet the 10-year-old law has reaped some benefits. It quickly highlighted a huge deficiency in Utah and other states concerning the way minority students were being taught. It made individual school performance transparent and allowed school districts and the public to identify problem schools and trouble spots. However, it also imposed goals on schools that are virtually impossible to obtain, such as achieving 100 percent proficiency among students in math and reading by 2014, and it did nothing to address teacher proficiency or education reforms.
The Obama administration's remedy for the law, made clear this week, is similarly both troubling and encouraging. The president announced he is granting 10 states waivers from some aspects of the law. The 10 (Utah is not among them, but further rounds of waivers are pending) received these in exchange for agreeing to the administration's conditions, such as adopting a common core of standards and tests and implementing an accountability system that emphasizes rewards for success over punishments for failure.
This new process may seem harmless on its face, but it injects the federal government — and specifically the executive branch — into local education in unprecedented ways. The No Child Left Behind law was the product of a bipartisan effort in Congress, with the support of President George W. Bush. Congress currently is at work trying to revise the law based on the concerns of educators and other experts. Not content to wait for that, President Obama is using the waiver process to circumvent legislative debate and compromise.
As Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute put it, "Once this administration opens this door, it's hard to imagine future administrations not building on this precedent." The consequence could be an ever-growing federal control over your neighborhood school.
And yet the answers aren't as simple as imposing an all-local or all-federal approach. The backdrop to this discussion is a performance record that ranks American students well down the list against competing students in other countries. The local-only approach to education can easily become mired in traditions and practices that are resistant to change absent some prodding from other sources. But neither the No Child Left Behind law nor the president's approach to waivers seem designed to spur the sorts of innovative thinking that is needed.
We would endorse federal incentives that encourage states to increase consumer choices and spur new, and even radical, approaches to education. Top-down approaches to change are no more effective than the stifling effects of local monopolies. The No Child Left Behind approach has done wonders in terms of shining spotlights on problems, but it has obvious deficiencies. Washington should instead demand performance standards but broadly encourage grass-roots innovations to reach them.