The Corner

Narrow the Achievement Gap by Narrowing Washington’s Role

For nearly half a century, closing the achievement gap between white and minority students has eluded policymakers. But it hasn’t been for lack of trying. The federal government has become increasingly involved in education policy, partly as a result of this effort.

In the midst of desegregation and the civil-rights movement, Pres. Lyndon Johnson wanted to ensure that poor and minority children could keep up with their peers. He tried to do this with compensatory education from Washington — spending federal dollars through federal programs — and through the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). Johnson hoped that significantly inflating the federal government’s role in education could make up for the achievement gap.

Fast-forward 45 years. The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the successor to ESEA — which President Bush signed into law in an attempt to overcome the “soft bigotry of low expectations” — is yielding the same lackluster results.

A new report from the Council of the Great City Schools — A Call for Change: The Social and Educational Factors Contributing to the Outcomes of Black Males in Urban School — notes that African-American male students continue to lag behind their white peers. The New York Times reports on the study’s findings, writing that “only 12 percent of black fourth-grade boys are proficient in reading, compared with 38 percent of white boys.…The report urges convening a White House conference, encouraging Congress to appropriate more money for schools and establishing networks of black mentors.”

But like past federal efforts, White House conferences and more taxpayer money are unlikely to close the achievement gap.

The good news is that we don’t have to settle for the status quo. The genius of federalism has produced great examples of how to narrow the achievement gap without increasing the scope of the welfare state.

Nationally, between 1998 and 2002, the average score for African-American students in reading increased 12 points. In Florida, over the same period of time, the average increased at double that rate (25 points). The fourth-grade reading gap between black and white students would be half the size it is today if African-American students nationwide had made the same impressive results as black students in Florida.

Notably, African-American students in Florida now outpace or tie the statewide average of all students in reading in eight states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, and New Mexico.

Florida has been able to start narrowing the achievement gap through commonsense reforms. Beginning in 1998 under the leadership of Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida ended social promotion, implemented limited performance pay for teachers, allowed alternative teacher certification, enacted school choice for special-needs students, and created a transparent system of grading schools and school districts.

From the War on Poverty in the 1960s to the No Child Left Behind era today, trying to close achievement gaps from Washington has proven expensive and ineffective. Continued attempts from Washington will produce similar unimpressive outcomes. But by letting states be the laboratories of reform that they were intended to be, more success stories like Florida can flourish — and achievement gaps be overcome.

— Lindsey M. Burke is an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

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