Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

It's the Kids, Stupid

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, July 10, 2001 --  

The education bill plodding its way toward compromise between the House and Senate is a monument to the staleness of America's debate over education. The legislation can be boiled down to two items: standardized testing and more spending. The Republicans want standardized testing; the Democrats want more federal spending. The bill is a compromise that combines the worst of two really stale ideas.

The Democrats plan to spend more money is hardly even worth the breath necessary for criticism. This is the party's standard answer to everything. There's an overwhelming flood of evidence that student performance is unrelated to the amount of money spent on the schools. The District of Columbia school system's per student spending, for example, has long been among the highest in the country.1 Student performance is nevertheless abysmal.

Bush's national testing idea is equally worthless. Until the president gave up on the idea in April, the national tests were supposed to be used to identify failing schools. Students in these failing schools would have been given a $1500 federal voucher to be used to transfer to any participating public or private school.3 Without vouchers, it's difficult to see why a standard for measuring student achievement will be helpful.

Republicans believe the tests are useful because they can be used to help implement their voucher plans at state and local levels. Their vision is to inject competition into the school system by allowing parents to transfer public funds along with their children to better performing schools. The result, so the theory goes, would be a competitive system with financial incentives for schools to perform better.

Opponents of the Republican scheme argue that vouchers will cause public schools to decline. The National Education Association bemoans the impact of this on teachers and students alike. Most Americans are unconcerned about protecting failing public schools, and even less so about protecting incompetent public school teachers. But they do care about protecting children, and that's where the NEA's position gets disturbingly close to the public sentiment.

If vouchers are ever instituted nationwide, some children will have to get left behind. Bad schools aren't caused by a lack of money. Bad schools aren't caused by a lack of competition. Bad schools are caused, by and large, by bad students.

This fact is so obvious -- despite its intense unpopularity -- it's shocking that it never gets discussed. People so desperately want to believe that all children have a chance at educational success, that they are unwilling to accept the fact that some kids just don't have the required aptitude to succeed. Get a critical mass of these kids in the same classroom, and it shouldn't be a surprise that learning takes a back seat to babysitting. These schools end up a dumping-ground for bad teachers that can't get jobs in more desirable schools.

Vouchers will never be accepted as long as Americans are unwilling to accept that some children just aren't going to succeed. In a voucher system, parents of bright students will naturally elect to send their kids to enriching environments, which inevitably means schools with other smart and motivated children where the better teachers can focus on teaching. The less bright kids will have to go to school somewhere. Wherever it is, the learning environment will undoubtedly be inferior.

Some egalitarians oppose vouchers for this very reason. They believe that America should have a one-size-fits-all educational system like Japan -- a system that concentrates on getting everyone to learn at the same level. This is exactly the wrong prescription for America, because tests show Americans have much more varied intelligence levels than people in other countries like Japan.2 Because of this variation, there are a lot more smart kids in America, as well as a lot more dumb ones. Using a one-size-fits-all system that allows an acceptable pass rate necessarily means dumbing-down standards for American schools.

This is the fatal flaw in Bush's national testing plan. The Republicans, like the Democrats, are seeking to impose a one-size-fits-all system. This can never work for America.

Until Americans are willing to accept that students of different abilities must be educated in different ways, prospects for meaningful education reform are nil. New standardized tests will show that schools with many smart kids perform well, and schools with few smart kids perform poorly. More money will continue to be wasted on attempts to make dumb kids test like smart ones. Vouchers will continue to be rejected by a public unable to accept that less-gifted kids must be left behind. And nothing important will change.


1. Policy Analysis, THE MYTH OF AMERICA'S UNDERFUNDED CITIES, February 22, 1993

2. Washington Post, Money Is Stumbling Block for Bush's Education Plan, April 22, 2001

3. Itzkoff, Seymour, The Decline of Intelligence in America, 1994, p. 63.