Dump standardized tests, "No Child Left Behind" and the U.S. Ed Department

Here's a way for taxpayers to save billions of dollars while improving education:

Get rid of standardized tests. Get rid of the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires the tests. Get rid of the U.S. Department of Education, which administers the tests. Free us from having to pay for this pointless extravagance.

This should be especially apparent with allegations of adult cheating (Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere) to boost student test scores to meet idealized benchmarks set by legions of "experts." Those allegations, of course, require the deployment of more legions of experts to hunt down frightened or fed-up teachers and administrators caught in the gears of this Rube Goldberg contrivance.

You don't need more studies or tests to know that this whole scheme has done little in the years since it was installed as a national priority to quiet the alarms about American students. But the alarms have become more thunderous, requiring the application of ever more stringent and costly measures. It's as mindless as Dark Ages bleeding; if bleeding off a pint doesn't improve the patient, take a quart.

Accept, if you dare, an invitation to wade into the tangle of "assessments of basic skills, measurable goals, school outcomes and high standards" formulated, in effect, to make the entire exercise incomprehensible to "lay people" who foot the bill. Plumb, if you can, the burgeoning industry of test designers, analysts and enforcers sired by the dream. Imagine the labyrinth of uncounted state and local educators who strive to implement and enforce the directives that come, not from involved parents, but from distant climes.

There are 5,000 federal bureaucrats laboring in the Department of Education, who, in addition to crafting other pedagogical alchemy, are engaged in rattling local schools fearful of losing federal funding because their student test scores fall short of an arbitrary standard. Here's a better idea: If the federal government must have 5,000 people doing something about education, assign them all to lend a hand in classrooms — assuming that they wouldn't do more damage there than they already do from afar.

At the risk of sounding stupid, naive and, pardon the pun, "old school," whatever the faults of the disjointed educational "system" that existed before the introduction of this organized mayhem, it did produce the world's most technologically advanced and intellectually stimulating nation. I hazard a guess that the success of the education system back then was more a function of a culture whose virtues included involved parents, respect for authority and confidence in ourselves.

True, back in the 1950s, the popular magazines (Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post) were packed with articles examining why "Johnny can't read." Unfortunately, that spawned all kinds of flights of fantasy away from basic education that has lead to today's confusion over "what works."

Much of today's hyperorganized education system also arose from a legitimate effort to measure teacher and school performance, to hold them accountable for real or perceived failures. This is a conundrum. The more measures of accountability that have been concocted, the harder organized labor works to strengthen the shield of protections surrounding incompetent teachers.

What to do?

Stop wasting money by creating ever more utopian formulas and enforcement schemes. Assume teachers are competent and dedicated and that principals are smart and capable enough to spot and get rid of teachers who aren't. As naive as that might seem, it surely beats the results we have obtained from the increasingly centralized system that barks at the schoolhouse door today.

The answer, of course, is to let teachers and schools fail or succeed on their own. The bad ones don't need someone from Washington to point out what already is apparent. Remove federal and state straitjackets that kill creativity and snuff dedication. This means school choice and vouchers — ideas loathed by the bureaucrats and labor unions that use their power to preserve a failed system for their own benefit. Count on them to continue to leverage their power with the cudgel of ever more laws, regulations and rules that preserve — no, actually increase — their power. It will take nothing less than a revolution by fed-up Americans to break the hold that this cartel has on our children.

This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune. Go here to view or add comments.

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