21 March 2008

The Silliness of Numbers

An article in the New York Times today (I know…consider the source) discusses states’ reporting graduation rates. Seems there’s more than a bit of discrepancy between what is real and what is reported to the federal government.

This should be no surprise to anyone. Any time progress is ordered from above without strict guidelines for metrics, there will be a fudging of the numbers. The biggest piece of fudge comes from Mississippi, which reports an 87% graduation rate to the feds while calculating a 63.3% graduation rate internally (NYT graphic). The article cites different reasons for these types of discrepancies: inability to accurately track students by states, embarrassment of actual graduation rates, and No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Now, with the goal of “settling this once and for all,” Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is thinking about “defining a single federal graduation rate and requesting states to report it that way.”

The silly thing is that even if this were to be done, it would only provide more concrete metrics to describe what is already fairly widely known: public education in the US is in trouble. More numbers are not needed to know this, really. And in my opinion, the heavy hand of Washington is not needed, either. For all of the bickering about limited government and such, Republicans are to thank for NCLB, perhaps the most invasive mandate on education in US history.

Republicans would do well to remember that centralized government control of programs which actually exist far, far from the national seat tends to make those programs more dysfunctional. NCLB is a prime example. What’s needed is less federal intervention and micro-management. Education is the business of the various states and, even more so, of the localities which have the greatest motivation to improve their own schools. Encouraging local level reform in myriad directions may, indeed, result in some train wrecks. But it would also result in some stunning successes. Either way, local control of education is preferable to the one way, the only way, the federal government way.

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