Education reform not the job of big goverment

President Obama and Congress are tackling massive education reform, but will the new policies really help?

Albert Cheng, Writer

The year 2011 is possibly shaping up to be a pivotal year in the public K-12 educational policy. In his State of the Union address, President Obama highlighted investing in education as one way to “win the future.” The speech has generated quite a reaction for education reform.

Steps being made toward reform

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and top congressional Republicans and
Democrats already have been discussing how to overhaul the previous federal overhaul of
education, the much-criticized No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Early steps of legislative action have occurred as the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce held their first hearing regarding a new federal education law. Congress hopes to have a new law this year or even by the end of summer.

Taking a step back

But it is wise to take a step back from the congressional hoopla and examine its catalyst – the rhetoric behind the State of the Union address. Here is Obama’s remark: “But
if we want to win the future – if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not
overseas – then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.”

In the words of another president, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

But is it truly about the economy? Obama’s proposition appears to make logical sense. If
the federal government simply invests (read: spends) more capital into education, then
more students will become a well-prepared workforce and improve the economy.

Looking at the empirical evidence

Let us first observe the return on the investments in K-12 education. Since 1970, annual
per pupil spending by the local, state, and federal governments in real dollars has more
than doubled
from $5,593 to $12,463 in 2007. Over the same time period, the federal
government alone has tripled its annual per pupil spending from $435 to $1015 in real

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called the nation’s report
card, is one of the few instruments the United States possesses to measure long-term
trends in educational achievement. According to the NAEP test results, reading and math
scores have remained relatively flat since the 1970s. In effect, the country has doubled the spending for public K-12 education and has virtually nothing to show for it. In effect, the country has doubled the spending for public K-12 education and has received virtually zero return, as this graph demonstrates.

Education and economics

Despite stagnant test results, the U.S. continues to enjoy relatively high economic
prosperity. Some may argue, then, that federal spending and intervention in higher education is the reason for this economic progress. However, data shows otherwise. A
recent study has found that 35 percent of college graduates now have jobs that do not require a college degree. Between 1992 and 2008, the number of college graduates has dramatically increased. However, only about 40 percent of the increased population of college graduates has a job that requires a college degree. Additional federal spending in higher education does not stimulate the economy. If anything, it incentivizes people to misuse money by obtaining a degree that they do not need.

The economic viability of the U.S. has more to do with its free enterprise system than its K-12 education system. So perhaps an expanding federal role in education is not as necessary as perceived to stimulate the economy.

Nevertheless, Obama continues to promote legislation that increases federal spending and intervention in education. In the State of the Union, he celebrated Race to the Top, “the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation.” If by “meaningful,” he also meant destructive, then he is correct.

Where the money really leads

RTT is a competition between state governments to win federal funds for their own
education budgets. But to even qualify for a share of federal money, the state governments are required to adopt new national education standards for their K-12 curriculum.

Large-scale standardization of curriculum, unfortunately, is a self-destructive reform: A
federal mandate for students to learn predetermined objectives at prescribed grade levels
only stifles creativity and produces conformity. Yet, creativity, not inside-the-box thinking, is what the U.S. needs to spur innovation and economic progress.

Perhaps Obama is going to have a “Sputnik moment,” after all, as he often
mentioned in his State of the Union address. After Congress passed the National Defense
Education Act in response to Russia’s Sputnik launch, math scores decreased.

Taking cues from Asia

Ironically, developing Asian countries are doing the opposite of the U.S. They
are decentralizing educational governance in favor of more local control and relaxing their curriculum standards to foster more creativity.

Congress should scrap the big government approach to education reform and take a page
out of the Asian countries’ books. State governments can even outdo the Asian nations by
implementing school choice programs, which would resolve many of the existing problems
in K-12 education.

Meanwhile, if the federal government continues to ignore the facts by spending and
meddling in K-12 education as it has for the past several decades, “winning the future” will just be rhetoric, not reality.

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