An Interview with Education Expert and Professor David Menefee-Libey

What characteristics do you think the new reauthorization will share with No Child Left Behind, and in what ways do you think it will differ?

Well, they’re not going to get rid of the push for curriculum standards or for annual testing of 3rd graders through 8th graders, and they’re not going to get rid of the demands for teacher credentialing and teacher quality—those things, I think, are impossible to remove.

But it’s going to be hard to sustain the interventions that [NCLB] triggered. The law, as it was written in 2001, said that 100 percent of all children should be proficient in language arts and math by 2014. One hundred percent. Any sensible person understood that there was no way in hell that that was possible, but it was far enough off into the future that they could pretend. So, that kind of target date will certainly have to go away.

The question is whether or not they will put in a different one at some distant point in the future—say, 2024—when all children will be proficient. It’s entirely possible that they may do something like that again, but I expect that the target dates will go away even as the testing mandates remain.

Do you think that the new policy will be more effective than past reauthorizations, specifically at increasing achievement and reducing the gap between white and black/Hispanic students’ test scores, and why?

It’s pretty clear to me that the kind of sharp attention to the achievement gap that NCLB triggered hasn’t really done a heck of a lot to close the achievement gap, and I don’t think that there’s any magic potions that anybody can drink that will fix that quickly. Looking at the near future, I don’t see how anybody can claim with certainty that one approach or another approach to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act [the original law authorizing federal funding for state education programs] will have this impact or that impact on achievement gaps.

In the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, the U.S. was 22nd among members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in math, 15th in science and 13th in reading. Should closing the “global achievement gap” between the U.S. and other OECD countries be a priority in American education reforms?

There are two or three things problematic in that . The first thing is that relative to other industrialized countries, we’re ranked about the same as we were 40 or 50 years ago, so I’m really skeptical that [rankings] should be drivers of anybody’s decision-making about education policy.

The second thing is that the way that we do schooling—in particular, science and mathematics—is dramatically different from the way they do it in other countries, and I’m not sure that I want to use other countries as models for what we’re doing. There’s this kind of international convergence going on—in some cases, they’re converging toward us and in other cases, we’re converging toward them.

The last thing is to ask: what are the purposes of the school system? For example, if you think that the core purpose of the American education system is to enable people to participate in a democratic society and their own self-government, then it’s not clear to me that comparing test scores between us and, pick your country, is going to give you any sort of clear indication of whether or not we’re preparing our citizens to be more self-governing than some other country is.

I’m always just really troubled by doing international comparisons. I think it’s more appropriate to figure out what we want our schools to accomplish and to try to help them do it, and to think about that in absolute terms rather than in competition with other countries.

Some critics claim that the U.S. spends too little on K-12 education, yet the U.S. ranks 3rd among OECD nations in primary and secondary school funding. Is national and/or state funding for primary and secondary education in the U.S. too low or simply improperly distributed?

Well, the biggest problem that we’ve got in doing those international comparisons is that in the United States, we use schools to deliver all kinds of social policies—health care, custodial day care, nutrition, transportation of children—and all of those things are included in our school system budgets. In most other countries in the world, those other kinds of social policies are not included in their school system budgets, so it’s very difficult to tease out what’s spent in our system actually on educating our children versus providing other social policies to them. If you simply look at school system budgets and look at all of the social policies we deliver to children, we spend a heck of a lot of money per pupil in [our] school systems. However, there’s a lot of other stuff that we’re doing with that money, so the comparison is hard.

Is the growth of charter schools a positive or negative trend in the U.S. education system and how can charter schools be used more effectively?

I think, in general, that the development of charter schools is a good thing, but charters are not magical. While I think on the whole it’s been a good thing to have them present in the system, I don’t think that you have to have charters to improve schooling for children. The things that make charter schools better make conventional schools better—we should just make all kinds of schools better.

The reason that we talk about charters so much is that we believe that somehow organizing schools in a different way is going to lead to better outcomes. We don’t like the way school districts are organized right now, we tend not to like school districts, superintendents, teachers’ unions, testing—we don’t like all sorts of things. We have a lot of fantasies that simply restructuring [the education system] and giving control to somebody else will lead to some kind of a better outcome, when in fact, there’s really not a whole lot of evidence of that.

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