Academic Freedom

NAEP Scores Disappoint: American Public Education’s Expensive Regress

Students have become less proficient in math and reading, according to government data recently released.

For the first time in 25 years, fourth-grade math and reading scores along with eighth-grade reading scores have declined on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), congressionally administered assessment by the National Center for Education Statistics and known as the “nation’s report card.” While scores have generally been stagnant, the country has come to expect incremental increases every year, so this year’s decline has prompted a flurry of discussion over what has caused the downturn.

Although education experts have blamed everything from Common Core to the recession, the fact is decades of increased federal and state spending on education have had very little effect on students’ test scores. Federal spending under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ostensibly intended to improve test scores and narrow achievement gaps, has tripled in real dollars since the 1960s, when it was first enacted. Today’s disappointing NAEP results come in an era where the average salary at the Department of Education has hit six figures.

It is time to look outside the spending paradigm for answers. Pouring more hard-earned taxpayer dollars into the same stagnant system will pay more administrators’ pensions, but it will not help students learn.

One of the few bright spots in this year’s NAEP results is Washington, D.C., which saw its scores increase by 13 points in reading and 10 points in math. While the District is the top education spender in the nation, all indicators in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), from graduation rates to NAEP scores, have languished near or at the bottom of the pack for years. However, for the past decade or more, D.C. has  taken steps to shake up the education monopoly and offer students and families educational choice.

D.C.’s charter law is the best in the nation, according to the Center for Education Reform’s annual ranking, and about 44 percent of its public school students now attend charter schools, which outperform their traditional counterparts. In addition, D.C. has a long-running and successful voucher program, which offers students the opportunity to attend a private school of their family’s choice and produces better results for less than half the taxpayer cost as the public schools.

School choice fosters competition, which, contrary to opponents’ arguments, actually helps public schools perform better. Out of 23 empirical studies examining the impact school choice programs had on their resident school district’s academic performance, 22 found a positive impact. So perhaps there should be no surprise relatively competition-laden D.C. improves while the rest of the nation falls behind.

Unfortunately, very few school districts are subject to the kind of competitive pressure that has encouraged DCPS to improve. Fewer than 350,000 students participate in the private school choice programs enacted in 26 states, compared with more than 50 million students in the public schools. There are enough charter schools to be competitive with traditional public schools in only a couple of large cities; across the rest of the country, charter attendees still represent less than five percent of traditional public school students.

Today’s release of disappointing NAEP scores should be another reminder that more spending without real change likely means continuing to fail our kids. Instead of cranking out the tired canard of mythical “underfunding,” or looking to the federal government for answers, taxpayers should look to introduce incentives to improve into their education systems by supporting school choice and allowing parents to take their education dollars where their children are being best-served.

In Depth: Academic Freedom

Freedom of speech and inquiry are crucial in higher education. Universities exist to educate students and pursue knowledge. As a “marketplace of ideas,” the university offers a forum for ideas to compete. This intellectual competition produces a level of academic rigor that is impossible to produce without freedom of speech …

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