Congress aims for “continuous improvement” from students

In education policy, Congress and President Obama’s administration continue to seek an unrealizable national whip that will somehow transform American schools for the better. These efforts ignore both evidence and common sense.

The latest example is a proposal developed by Senate Democrats to re-authorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (known recently as “No Child Left Behind,” or NCLB). Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate education committee, has drafted a bill that will relieve states of having to meet federally specified achievement goals in math and reading. Instead of requiring all students to be “proficient” in these basic skills by 2014 (as NCLB demands), or to be “college ready” by 2020 (as the Obama administration proposes), the Harkin bill will require only that schools show “continuous improvement” for all students, and for students from low-income families, those who don’t speak English, minority students, and students with disabilities (see page 52 of the draft bill).

According to a report in Education Week, “state and local officials likely will be exchanging high-fives, since that would give them much of the flexibility they’re looking for.”

They are in for a shock. “Continuous improvement” is no more reasonable or achievable than “proficiency for all,” or universal college readiness.

Of course, citizens should expect every public school to strive for its peak level of performance, but some schools have much farther to go to reach this level than others. Unlike present policy, a well-designed accountability system could judge how far each school can and should go, and whether it is on the right track to get there for the several populations it may serve. In each case, this is a difficult judgment to make, and a slogan is no substitute. In this regard, a single one-size-fits-all metric such as “continuous improvement” is no better than “proficiency for all.” The Broader, Bolder, Approach to Education campaign has described the outlines of a more reasonable accountability system, and a book, Grading Education, goes into more detail.

NCLB’s attempt to require all students to be proficient at a challenging level led to the absurd result that nearly every school in the nation was on a path to be deemed failing by the 2014 deadline. The demand ignored an obvious reality of human nature – there is a distribution of ability among children regardless of background, and no single standard can be challenging for children at all points in that distribution.

Expecting all children to be college-ready suffers from the same problem, and more. In a nation where 32 percent of all young adults now earn bachelor’s degrees, and where the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that only 30 percent of job openings by 2018, even in a healthy economy, would require a bachelor’s degree or more, the notion that 100 percent of students would be able to succeed in an academic college by 2020 is even more fanciful.

So why not “continuous improvement” instead? It’s a nice slogan, borrowed from a management fad promoted by W. Edwards Deming and others who thought this was the key to Japanese auto manufacturing success. But while consistent attention to small improvements makes sense as a management tool, no company has ever continuously improved, overall, indefinitely. There are spurts of improvement, and plateaus, and then the most successful companies fade, to be overtaken by others. No management expert would recommend that firms be dismantled if they are consistently profitable, but just not more profitable year after year after year.

But continuous improvement will now, if Senate Democrats have their way, be the trajectory for every school in the country, by law. Read the rest of my commentary here for more on why the expectations of Congress have no basis in reality.


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