Wednesday, June 24, 2009

No Comparison

Texas is refusing to join an effort to develop national standards for Math and English education. Texas, Alaska, Missouri, and South Carolina are the only states to decline. The stated reasons for refusing to participate and declining these Race to the Top Funds is cost and maintaining independence. The cost excuse doesn't hold water since a cost that is currently borne entirely within the state would be shared among many. The second reason, distaste for adopting any idea that wasn't developed in Texas, may well be sincere but is hardly helpful. My contention is that the real reason for refusing to participate is something else altogether: Texan politicians don't want a transparent comparison of our schools' achievements with those of other states.

What many people fail to recognize about the current No Child Left Behind program is that is measures how well schools and districts meet their own state standards. So states which set low proficiency standards will find that they perform better on NCLB measures than states that set a higher bar. And because each state develops its own testing, there is no easy way to see which states set the bar lower than others. This makes it possible for politicians in states to tout their achievements with the federal NCLB (making it seem to voters that this is a real national comparison) even as standards and results remain low. People in the state, wanting to believe that their state is holding their own, are eager to believe their politicians. This leads to a Lake Wobegon effect, where every state is above average.

I have argued earlier that there is nothing wrong with low minimum standards as long as they used as minimum standards instead of as targets. But the current system, in which each states sets its own target and then is judged on how well it meets that, just encourages a race to the bottom. What we have now obfuscates comparison among states, but we are going to break out of this race to the bottom, we need relatively easy and reliable ways for the public to compare education in the various states. So let's not let the State of Texas' pride and independence stand in the way of creating an education system that we can honestly be proud of.

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