6. Is there any evidence that centralized education works better than decentralized education?

In the 1980s, Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander instituted Basic Skills First. This program micromanaged public school curricula and required that Tennessee homeschoolers take the same annual assessment as public school students. After two years, homeschoolers had outperformed public students so dramatically that the state stopped administering the same standardized test to the homeschooled students. The triumph of homeschooling over Tennessee's centralized educational system is but one proof of an increasingly evident principle: decentralizing education is the surest way to improve American schools.1

In the United States, experimenting with centralized reform has done almost nothing to improve the performance of students. From 1971 to 2008, American students' scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) mathematics assessments have improved only 3.4%, despite the billions of dollars the federal government has poured into education. The data on reading is even more disconcerting: NAEP reading scores have not changed since 1992 and have improved just 1% since 1971.2 Indeed, it appears that the more money the federal government invests in education, the smaller the return. In 2011, Andrew J. Coulson, director of the Education Center for Freedom at the CATO Institute, found that the achievement gap between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds has not improved since the beginning of federal education spending in 1958.3

Noting that several countries which consistently outperform America on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests have nationalized education systems, U.S. reformers continue to argue for centralizing the American education system. However, PISA results are inconclusive as to whether a centralized system is more effective. In 2006, 27 countries ranked higher than the U.S. on the PISA science exam, and 17 of these countries had nationalized systems. But 12 nations that ranked below the U.S. also had centralized systems.4 Regardless, centralizing education has been ineffective in the United States. Professor Jay P. Greene offers a possible explanation saying, “We are a large and diverse country. Teaching everyone the same material at the same time and in the same way may work in small homogenous countries…but it cannot work in the United States. There is no single best way that would be appropriate for all students in all circumstances.”5

Though evidence on the efficacy of centralized education systems is inconclusive, the benefits of a decentralized approach are documented both internationally and domestically. Finland’s students topped the PISA charts in 2000 and 2006, and ranked in the top echelon in 2003 and 2009.6 Finland has rejected heavy standardized testing since the national assessment movement swept through the world in the 1990s. It refuses to rank its teachers according to the test results of their students; its National Board of Education even closed its inspectorate in 1991. Finnish teachers design their own courses and spend about 80% more time teaching classes than American teachers.7 Deliberate decentralization of education in Finland has produced one of the foremost systems in the world.

The benefits of a decentralized approach to education have also been proven in America. Since 2004, the Department of Education has provided $7,500 scholarships to low-income residents of the District of Columbia allowing children to attend private schools.8 In 2008–09, students attending private schools as a result of this program performed equal to or better than children in public schools on standardized tests, and the graduation rate of the private school students was significantly higher than that of the public school students. This decentralized approach yielded better results at a fourth of the cost of the average public school education in D.C. in 2008–09.9

The success of homeschooling in America offers further domestic proof of the benefits of decentralized education. In 2013, Robert Kunzman of Indiana University and Milton Gaither of Messiah College evaluated multiple studies and showed that homeschool students score above average in reading and English Arts. They noted that homeschool students transition into postsecondary life much more successfully than public school students.10 Kunzman and Gaither cited 10 independent studies indicating that homeschoolers outrank their traditionally schooled counterparts in collegiate grade point average, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and strength of religious and political views. They also observed that homeschoolers soar far above their peers in leadership ability.11

While advocates of the Common Core argue that the standards are state-approved and decentralized, federal involvement demonstrates otherwise. The federal government has offered the states No Child Left Behind waivers and more than $4.35 billion in Race to the Top grants, essentially bribing them to adopt the Common Core State Standards. It has also financed the two national testing consortia developing Common Core-related assessments and has even created a technical review panel for the tests at the U.S. Department of Education. As Bill Gates, financer of the Common Core Standards, affirmed in 2009, “When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well.”12

The evidence indicates that a one-size-fits-all, centralized system directed by bureaucrats is not the antidote for American education. Only the individuality and innovation found in a decentralized approach can revive our failing system.

Document updated June 13, 2014

1 Read more about the failed Basic Skills First program at http://www.hslda.org/courtreport/V7N6/V7N602.asp .

2 See the Long-Term Trend analysis tool at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/lttdata/, accessed June 13, 2013. This analysis reflects the test scores of 13-year-old students.

3 Andrew J. Coulson, “The Impact of Federal Involvement in America’s Classrooms,” CATO Institute, February 10, 2011, accessed June 13, 2013, http://www.cato.org/publications/congressional-testimony/impact-federal-involvement-americas-classrooms .

4 The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2006), 20, accessed June 13, 2013, http://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisaproducts/pisa2006/39725224.pdf and Neal McCluskey, “Behind the Curtain: Assessing the Case for National Curriculum Standards,” CATO Policy Analysis no. 661 (February 17, 2010): 9, accessed June 12, 2013, http://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/pa661.pdf .

5 Jay P. Greene, “Testimony before the United States House of Representatives Education and Workforce Committee,” U.S. House of Representatives, September 21, 2011, accessed June 13, 2013, http://edworkforce.house.gov/uploadedfiles/09.21.11_greene.pdf .

6 See Samuel E. Abrams, “The Children Must Play,” New Republic, January 28, 2011, accessed June 13, 2013, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/politics/82329/education-reform-Finland-US# , The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2000), 69, and The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2009), 14.

7 Abrams, “The Children Must Play.”

8 U.S. Department of Education, Evaluation of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (National Association for Educational Evaluation and Research Assistance, 2010), accessed June 18, 2013, http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20104018/pdf/20104018.pdf .

9 Coulson, “Impact of Federal Involvement.”

10 See Robert Kunzman and Milton Gaither, “Homeschooling: A Comprehensive Survey of the Research,” The Journal of Educational Alternatives 2, no. 1 (2013): 17.

11 Ibid., 29–30.

12 Bill Gates, prepared remarks (National Conference of State Legislatures, July 21, 2009), “Bill Gates-National Conference of State Legislatures,” Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, accessed March 1, 2014, http://www.gatesfoundation.org/media-center/speeches/2009/07/bill-gates-national-conference-of-state-legislatures-ncsl.