It's Time to Kill the Department of Education
Editor's Note: Education Week Commentary editors asked seven education practitioners and leaders to respond to the White House's "Testing Action Plan" and a coinciding Council of the Great City Schools study on mandatory testing. Read what each contributor had to say.
What happened in October? Arne Duncan resigned. President Barack Obama, our 10th consecutive "education president," changed course on testing. The NAEP "report card" was damning, revealing the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program to be a flop, even by his own standards.
T. Robinson Ahlstrom
How long will we keep doing this? For 50 years, bureaucrats and social scientists have used our schools as laboratories for their latest theory and incubators for a more egalitarian society. Standardization is now the goal. Real excellence is thought to be elitist and undemocratic. The educationalists have taken the "P" out of the PTA and reduced our schools to a cinderblock and linoleum gulag of mind-numbing mediocrity.
While literacy rates are rising globally, they're falling in the United States. America is the only free-market OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) country where the current generation is less educated than the previous one.
By profiling students as victims who are somehow "at risk" because of their race, gender, native tongue, or family income, and then mandating special programs to save them from their alleged plight, the U.S. Department of Education has run the classic bureaucratic scam. In the words of historian Jacques Barzun, "This is criminal nonsense. All children can learn and do learn." The real question is this: What are we teaching them?
Five months before his death, George Washington, our real "education president," put his affairs in order. After making provision for Martha, and for freeing the slaves, it was all about support for liberal education. Washington knew that if America was to be different, so too must be its schools. In his Last Will and Testament, he explained his charitable priorities, writing that "too frequently, not only habits of dissipation & extravagance, but principles unfriendly to Republican Government and to the true & genuine liberties of Mankind" were taught in schools and "thereafter are rarely overcome."
Tests requiring all teaching and learning to cease while everyone sharpens their No. 2 pencil to carve scratches into bubbles adjacent ill-conceived questions are more than a nuisance. They are an emblem of what has been lost and of the federal government's incompetence to oversee the instruction of the nation's youth. The only aptitude or knowledge such tests accurately register is that of those who write and mandate them.
Since its creation in 1979 to fulfill a Carter campaign promise made to a teacher's union, the U.S. Department of Education has burned through billions without adding a penny of value. By 2002, its first year budget of $14.5 billion had ballooned to $47.6 billion. In its 2016 federal budget, the White House is requesting $70.7 billion. For what?
As its October NAEP report clearly demonstrates, the U.S. Department of Education is a failure, even by its own metrics. But its failure is not only in improving basic literacy and numeracy. Its iron-limbed regulation of primary, secondary, and tertiary institutions is positively hostile to the very idea of liberal education.
Let's not just kill the tests.
T. Robinson Ahlstrom is a managing partner of Cambridge Advisory, LLC. He also serves as the chairman of The George Washington Scholars Endowment and as a trustee of The American Academy for Liberal Education.