Do the Right Thing: NCLB and High Standards

Last week the US Department of Education confirmed what teachers have known for years: the Bush era No Child Left Behind reforms made it harder for educators to do the right thing.

How so? According to a new study, nearly a third of states lowered their academic standards between 2005 and 2007. That's right: not raised, lowered. Why would they do this?

The answer is simple Freakonomics. Under NCLB, the federal government told the states: "You can set your own standards, and you can write your own standardized tests, but you have to make sure your kids can pass them. And by the way, we're not giving you any more money to do this, and if you don't do it we're going to take away the money we already give you."

What would any rational person (or state) do in that situation? How about ... lower their standards, so they can keep their funding? Last week's news was disappointing, but it shouldn't come as a shock.

Now I should pause and mention the good news in this report: most states didn't take this route, and eight states actually raised standards. That's impressive. In the face of a federal incentive to make schools worse, these leaders did the right thing. Kudos to them.

But their noble behavior doesn't make NCLB's message any less egregious. Policy should give people incentives to do the right thing, not the wrong thing. What if, for example, the federal government rewarded states for setting high standards and provided resources to help children meet those standards? Obama's Race to the Top proposes to do the first, but I'm not convinced it does the second. It should.

NCLB is fading from policy discussions, but it continues to shape daily life in schools. Capitol Hill can forget about the law; teachers can't. Let's make sure that policymakers learn from their mistakes. Federal policy should support, not hinder, teachers and schools in their work of educating all kids to high standards. In education, students are the only bottom line.