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April 2002; Volume 20, Number 4

With Education Like This

by Shawn Ritenour

In February of 1926, the US Senate Committee on Education and Labor and the US House Committee on Education were holding joint hearings investigating the desirability of a then-proposed US Department of Education. Princeton Seminary professor J. Gresham Machen was asked to give his thoughts regarding federal involvement in education. “Uniformity in education under central control, it seems to me, is the worst fate into which any country can fall,” he told the assembled congressmen.

Standardization in education is not a virtue, but a vice with immense consequences. As Machen continued, “Now, I am perfectly ready to admit that standardization in some spheres is a good thing. It is a good thing in the making of Ford cars; but just because it is a good thing in the making of Ford cars, it is a bad thing in the making of human beings, for the reason that a Ford car is a machine and a human being is a person.” 

Fast forward to our times, and consider Bush’s education proposal passed by both houses of Congress. This is an education plan which Senator Edward Kennedy called “a blueprint for progress in all the nation’s schools.” Is there such a thing as damning with magnanimous praise? 

It’s not hard to understand why Kennedy likes the new soon-to-be law. The new plan will provide billions more in national tax dollars—$26.5 billion in fiscal 2002 alone—to favored school districts, while at the same time requiring every third- through eighth-grader to be tested annually in math and reading with a test created by the national education bureaucrats. And the beauty of it is that schools whose test scores do not improve over two years receive even more money. 

For his part, President Bush, who was supposed to be the “smaller government” candidate in the last election, described the new provisions as “historic reforms.” Indeed. The Bush plan places more control over elementary and secondary education in the hands of the state than ever before. For a long time national education policy was sort of holding hands with socialism. With the passage of the Bush plan, however, we have kissed it full on the mouth.

One reason for the plan’s wide popularity is that it is tempting for those who still care about educational excellence to fall prey to the siren song of national standards and testing. However, national testing and government money tied to the results of those tests means that the state will be calling the educational shots. 

In New York, for instance, management by objectives and test scores has had predictable results. For schools targeted by the state as under-performing, every teacher has to follow a ridiculously prescribed plan, often down to the second. New York schools’ “Success for All” reading curriculum completely spells out what the teachers must do and say and how long they are to spend on each lesson or activity. Some actions are prescribed to take thirty seconds while others as long as forty minutes. 

New teachers who stray from the script to insert personal observations or anecdotes are castigated by their veteran mentors who are assigned to monitor their work. As one teacher wooed into the public school system by pleas of “teacher shortage” complained to the New York Times, “I don’t think the call for help was to have people come into these schools and say, ‘Open your book to page blah-dee-blah.’”

The carrot of government money predictably also leads to corruption. A couple of years ago, New York City was shocked to hear that some teachers were giving clues to test takers and giving cheat sheets to increase test scores. It is reported that at least one teacher in Missouri has also posted cheat sheets on the classroom wall while testing was under way. Clearly in these cases, test results were inflated. The teachers are probably humiliated, but when their budgets are determined by their students’ scores on a state exam, people will do things they are not proud of.

If one really wants to see how destructive centralized control over education via government money and testing can be, we can be shown by the Show-Me State. In 1993, the state of Missouri, taking its cue from Bill Clinton, decided that not only should the state be responsible for ensuring that “no child be left behind,” but it should also ensure students are pushed ahead into a job by providing schooling that is more career oriented. The Missouri legislature subsequently enacted the Outstanding School Act. Part of this act included the “A-Plus Schools” program that began in 1997 during the administration of the late governor Mel Carnahan. 

The “A-Plus Schools” program has a number of things in common with the coming Bush Plan, and has a number of things wrong with it. Like Bush’s plan, Missouri’s state plan increased state spending on schools and mandated state tests used to determine where the money is spent. Missouri’s program began by raising taxes by $315 million dollars annually. This is another form of legalized theft, coercively taking money from productive citizens and giving it to someone else.

Missouri schools that meet certain criteria, such as tailoring their curriculum to state dictates, are designated as A-Plus Schools and get more state money. To become an A-Plus School, it must eliminate “general track” courses and replace them with “more career-oriented learning opportunities,” further transforming high school from an educational endeavor to a giant job-training program. They must also work to reduce the dropout rate. 

Additionally, students who graduate from an A-Plus School receive two years of free tuition plus free books plus payment for all fees if they attend a Missouri community college or technical or vocational school. This, of course, puts four-year academic institutions at a disadvantage. 

While certainly not the institutions that they were, it is still true that the average four-year college or university is more rigorous than the typical junior college. High-school guidance counselors direct students to these junior colleges and tech schools because it is easy and free. 

When high-school graduates have the opportunity to have an easier time receiving two years’ worth of college credit and to get it all for free, it is easy to see why they take the money and run. The problem is exacerbated for private colleges and universities, which are usually more expensive and more demanding than state-run four-year schools. Consequently, in the name of raising educational standards, Missouri gives its students incentive to receive the lowest level college education available to them. 

The destruction does not stop there. Those students who have opted to go the community college route are now finding that transferring to a four-year institution for the completion of a bachelor’s degree is not as easy as originally thought. Transfer students find that, as a result of two years of relatively lower-level education, they are struggling to make the transition and find it hard to keep up with their cohorts in their new schools. 

Understandably, some four-year institutions, recognizing the disparity in rigor between their own freshman and sophomore courses and those taught at the community college level, have opted to designate some of their general education courses as junior level, so they will not have to accept transfer credit for those courses. 

This seemed to ameliorate some of the educational problems until some well-connected parents noted that their child was not able to transfer all his community college credit hours toward meeting the general education requirements to one of the state universities. It was not long before the legislature told the State Coordinating Board for Higher Education that it had better see to it that all state four-year universities accept all state community college general education credit hours, or the legislature was going to take it upon themselves to do it. 

Of course, the coordinating board did not want a bunch of politicians running the show, so the educational bureaucrats took it upon themselves to draft an articulation agreement whereby the signatories promise to develop a forty-two-credit-hour block of courses that meets educational objectives and core competencies as dictated by the state. 

Those signing the articulation document also agree to accept all forty-two hours of credit as meeting its general education requirement if a transfer student is coming from another signatory school. In other words, every general education program of every state institution of higher learning was forced to accept the centralized curriculum designed by the state coordinating board.

While it may make some sense that all state schools should be on the same page, this mandate also, it turns out, poisons the educational water in private higher education as well. Private four-year colleges are again put at a disadvantage. Most do not have huge endowments or do not receive large government research grants. Their budgets are driven by student tuition, plain and simple. Now there exists a host of potential transfer students that they initially lost to community colleges due to the A-Plus Program who are looking to make the easiest and least costly transfer possible. 

This state-created transfer issue further generates the incentive for private institutions to also sign the articulation agreement, because if they do not, they fear losing students to schools who are publicized as having seamless transfers from community college. 

Consequently, we have private schools, whose existence is justified by their being different from what the state offers, now scrambling to bring their curriculum into agreement with the state. Hours are spent at faculty and administration meetings haggling over whether a course in multiculturalism needs to be added to meet a mandated competency or whether the existing economics course meets enough state objectives to keep it in the general education requirements. 

The fact that private schools are facing these kinds of decisions is a brilliant example of Mises’s dictum that middle-of-the-road policy leads to socialism. Initial intervention through the A-Plus Program geared toward helping high-school students has made it harder for them to succeed at four-year institutions and has generated transfer problems that have led to the socialization of the curriculum of higher education in the state of Missouri. 

This is what we have to look forward to on a nationwide scale in the wake of the new Bush Plan. We were warned by the likes of Mises and Machen. The silver lining for which we must search is that the Bush education policy will speed up the rate at which parents pull their children out of state schools and enroll them in private schools or teach them at home. The present pride of national education bureaucrats is merely the first herald of their coming fall.

* * * * *

Shawn Ritenour teaches economics at Grove City College (srritenour@gcc.edu).

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