Reforms should concentrate on quality, not quantity
June 1, 1998
by Chester E. Finn
The nation is still "at risk" because most of our children fail to learn enough as they pass through formal schooling. The central failings of our education system today involve low quality, weak performance, poor efficiency, and inadequate productivity. I could take quite a lot of space to document that statement, but I shall forebear. There remains a noisy faction within the education profession that is into deep denial, even now, but the general public certainly agrees that we have a serious quality problem.
Unfortunately, the entire federal education apparatus is geared toward solving a different problem: the mid-1960s diagnosis of a lack of educational quantity. With rare exceptions, today’s federal education programs were designed to expand access and extend services, and they succeeded spectacularly in solving the quantity problem. Whereas at the turn of the century just 6 percent of American adults had finished high school and in 1967 half the adult population (twenty-five and older) was walking around without high-school diplomas, approximately 94 percent of today’s young adults complete high school (although not necessarily at the typical age). We can be proud that today all children can attend school.
The problem now is, far too many of the schools they attend are not nearly good enough, and there is no evidence that efforts to retrofit our federal policies to achieve goals of quality and excellence have succeeded. Yet, as we approach the limits to growth in the quantity of education, further societal gains must come from improvements in quality. The central reason the nation is "at risk" today is not that we are not supplying enough education but that our students are not absorbing enough of it.
This American problem is well understood throughout the world. A study of the U.S. economy by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), for example, notes that "by far the weakest link in the chain of human capital-building institutions is the system of primary and secondary education." The U.S. adult population has received on average more years of schooling than those of other large, industrialized nations, but our record is one of steadily rising expenditures without commensurate gains in performance. The economist Eric Hanushek estimates, "Even if the student population had remained constant, real aggregate school expenditure would have increased twenty-five-fold over the past century."
Those expenditures have bought all sorts of quantity-style improvements, notably including many more adults employed by our schools, steadily shrinking class sizes and student-teacher ratios, new kinds of specialists and all sorts of additional services. The core question facing us today is whether we can steel ourselves for the much more difficult challenges of quality, performance, productivity and efficiency.
This is not an easy shift for Uncle Sam to make. He’s a creature of habit, and his habits are deeply ingrained. It’s clear, for example, that most of the Clinton administration’s program proposals last year and this are quantity-centered: more teachers, smaller classes, more bilingual education programs, more college grants, more school buildings, more technology, more child care, more drug education programs, and so forth and so on.
Unfortunately, if there is anything we have learned from thirty years of education reform, it is that quantity-oriented programs do not boost educational achievement. Though "quality" has recently entered the rhetoric of some federal program managers and advocates, it is not what those programs were intended or designed to achieve. There is little reason to believe that their efficacy will change in the future, and we really shouldn’t expect it to. That would be like expecting an eighteen-wheeler to win the Indianapolis 500.
Another momentous decision was made in the mid-1960s: to treat school systems as Washington’s principal client and customer in all K-12 education transactions. The client was not the student, family, or even the town or state as a political jurisdiction. Rather, the key mechanism in elementary-secondary programs is the transfer of federal money (and regulations) from Washington to "state education agencies" (SEAs) and "local education agencies" (LEAs).
Today, in retrospect, it looks very much like a decision by Uncle Sam to look after the chickens by funding the foxes. It made some sense at the time. If quantity-enhancement and service-delivery were the primary point of federal involvement, who better to work through than the entities comprising the "delivery system"?
Now, however, we understand that it is the delivery system itself that is failing to produce results—and it’s those LEAs and SEAs and the interest groups surrounding them that (with rare exceptions) constitute the "education establishment" that protects the status quo and resists serious reforms, particularly efforts to induce greater productivity, flexibility, and parent-responsiveness, yet that is the establishment to which we still entrust nearly all federal K-12 dollars.
In the mid-1960s, Washington assumed that change is wrought by a combination of dollars (carrots) and regulations (sticks), that change is always and properly dictated from on high (the higher the level of government making the decision, the wiser and more progressive it was assumed to be), and that education experts are the best decision-makers.
Today, this paradigm is obsolete and inappropriate. Most of the real dynamism in education reform is bubbling up from energized states and localities—not from SEAs and LEAs—and from the private sector and grass-roots, populist initiatives such as charter schools. There is an education reform earthquake shaking the land. It includes a dozen new forms of schooling in addition to traditional "public" and "private" institutions, and almost as many policy strategies for helping families choose among these forms. Yet Washington seems to have retreated into an earthquake shelter. With trivial exceptions (such as the small program of aid for charter schools), neither Congress nor the Clinton administration has achieved anything of note.
Wrong diagnosis. Wrong client. Wrong paradigm. Uncle Sam is still seeking quantity enhancement when quality is the issue. He is funding public school monopolies when they have become the source of the problem. And he is blithely assuming that expert-driven, uniform, top-down, government-centered strategies will bring about change when the real dynamism in education reform is coming from very different sources.
My advice, not surprisingly, is to undo all three of those great errors:
Under this paradigm, Washington would take a completely different approach to K-12 education. Resources would be entrusted to families and to general purpose governments (such as states and cities) rather than to school systems. Market-style mechanisms rather than expert-driven "central planning" would be embraced—and given maximum freedom and minimum constraint.
To achieve this, Uncle Sam should replace today's hundreds of separate "categorical" programs with a couple of block grants or voucher-style programs. When a child is deemed eligible for federal aid, for whatever reason, that aid should follow him to the school (or other vendor) of his and his family’s choice. Families that do not want certain services for their children (such as bilingual education) should not have to accept them. Washington should also quit subsidizing state and local education bureaucracies. They should pay their own overhead. And the feds should stop subsidizing middlemen to furnish "technical assistance" and the like. States and communities and families know what to do—and how to find the information they need.
Finally, if we are truly serious about quality, Washington will pay much greater attention to assessment and evaluation of educational performance, considering both the efficacy of federal programs and the overall performance of children and schools. We cannot have a quality-centered reform strategy that is diverse, flexible, and responsive without being crystal-clear as to what results are acceptable and then making sure that schools and children achieve them.
Consider for a moment the twenty-first century arrangement this new paradigm will create. Individual schools and families will be the main actors in the new system. Any school that is open to the public, paid for by the public, and accountable to the public for its results will be considered a public school, no matter who runs it. Schools will be completely autonomous—free to make all important educational and managerial decisions. But they will also be accountable, surviving only so long as they produce the results demanded by the state—and so long as they attract clients.
All such public schools will be schools of choice. No student or family is forced to attend any school in particular. Thus schools will also be accountable to the market for providing services satisfactory to parents and children. No school is guaranteed its budget (or jobs). No school owns its students. It must "earn" its revenue by doing what it is supposed to.
The role of the state (and—to the extent that it remains a necessary part of the delivery system—the district) is not to run schools directly but, rather, to collect and distribute education resources efficiently and equitably, to set standards, and to hold schools accountable for results. Dollars follow the child to the school of his or her choice. (The amount may vary such that a harder-to-educate child brings added resources.) States set high academic (and other) standards that students (and schools) are obliged to meet. States assess the performance of schools and students at regular intervals, and schools that fail to produce adequate results are warned, then helped, then (if necessary) shut down. The state publishes lots of information about all its schools, so that families can make informed choices among them. The state also keeps families informed about their children’s performance vis-à-vis the state’s academic standards.
In this new education world, the federal government will have three responsibilities: redistributing resources, providing ample assessments and other data, and guarding against civil rights violations. That’s all. Visualize a three-room Department of Education. The first room contains a carefully-programmed computer and check-writing machine. The second contains the "office of assessments and statistics." The third room houses a lean "civil rights" bureau that responds promptly to complaints of discrimination but refrains from seeking ways to push schools around.
In the new system, Washington continues to provide extra money for harder-to-teach students. Disadvantaged and disabled youngsters receive extra money, as do those with limited English proficiency—but nobody is sent to "bilingual" education or special education without the parents’ explicit consent. The extra money from Washington follows the child, creating incentives for schools (and other providers) to serve these special populations and off-setting the extra costs of doing so.
Washington steps up its statistics-and-assessment functions, and these are carefully insulated from all forms of political (and interest group) interference. These include voluntary national tests for states (or individual schools or parents) that want to use them.
Today, the federal government’s outmoded paradigm is impeding state and local efforts to improve our nation’s schools. It is time to replace it.
Chester E. Finn Jr. is the John M. Olin Fellow at Hudson Institute and President of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. He is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education. This essay is based on testimony prepared for delivery to the Committee on the Budget, United States Senate, February 11, 1998.
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