Wednesday, April 24

Professor Volokh Does a Turn as William Tell

Now that Professor Volokh, a legal scholar whom I hold in the highest esteem, has made light of the superficiality and intellectual irresponsibility of my comment regarding his earlier post (see SPEAKING OF APPLES AND EDUCATION--brilliant title, by the way), I feel that I must pull up my socks and clarify my position.

As I thought my earlier post made clear, I was not claiming that the gradual movement from exclusive state and local funding and control of education to an active federal role in those areas was solely responsible for the decline in educational standards, nor was I even claiming that it was a significant cause of the phenomenon. I was merely noting that the federalization of education was an important post-1960 phenomenon and one that deserves consideration as a contributing factor in the decline of educational standards. I am quite aware that correlation does not imply causation, which is why I presented the observation as a throw away line and made no attempt to support it with the data that such a claim would demand.

I will, however, say one thing for the theory that federalization may account for the seeming paradox of increased spending leading to declining standards. Federal initiatives such as Head Start, which are often implemented as unaccountable political panaceas, have accounted for an increasing amount of the money allocated to education since 1960. However, study after study has shown that Head Start does not have a measurable long-term impact on student performance and the best that can be said for it is that it has produced inconclusive results over its first 35+ years. See here for a short description of the failures of Head Start program. (The same criticism, of course, could be leveled at many other federal education programs, but I will concentrate on Head Start because it is so well known, has been so well studied and yet, puzzlingly, is still so well regarded.) This lackluster performance does not seem to discourage the federal government, which has taken a remarkably optimistic view of these inconclusive results and decided repeatedly to increase the program's funding (most recently in the last budget). Using Head Start as an example, it does not take too much exertion of the old cerebellum to see that the sort of broad, policy driven programs that are the only kind a centralized federal government is able to implement may not result in the most efficient expenditure of education dollars.

I agree wholeheartedly with Professor Volokh's point that it would require marshalling a substantial amount of data in order to actually demonstrate a real correlation between increased federalization and sliding student performance. I would go even further and posit that it would actually be impossible to ever establish such a correlation given the almost infinite variables affecting the national education system, which is itself the product of innumerable larger social pressures. Given the unlikelihood of ever being able to pin the blame for lower standards on centralization and federalization, I am not prepared to press too hard in that direction (hence the casual flippancy of the charge in my earlier post). I do not, however, think that it is too much to ask for increased vigilance by the federal government in monitoring its national education programs. This Republican White House in particular should insist on measurable positive gains by each of its national programs and should not be afraid to pull funding when results are not forthcoming.

I have already spent far too much time trying to justify a rather unassuming initial comment, so I will let the matter rest for now. I will, however, post any interesting responses I receive regarding this or any other topic on my site. And thank you Professor Volokh for keeping me on my toes.