First, some of the policy proposals. Ryan would turn federal funds for the ineffective Head Start program into a block grant for states to integrate into their early education services. Encouragingly, he would fund multiple randomized experiments to test claims made by preschool advocates. Let’s hope those are multi-site experiments conducted by outside investigators so that the results are most informative. As for K-12 education, Ryan would block-grant Title I-A spending and make it portable, part of a longstanding conservative goal. The block grant would lessen federal involvement in education, and the portability feature would encourage school choice.
These are all steps in the right direction, but I still feel uncomfortable reading through the education section. There is a troubling focus on the desire to “close the achievement gap.” In fact, based on the introduction, much of Ryan’s education plan appears premised on the need for gap-closing.
That’s a misguided and potentially counter-productive goal. Socioeconomic achievement gaps in school are inevitable for a couple of simple reasons: Smarter people tend to attain higher socioeconomic status, and smarter people also tend to have smarter kids. Those are generalities, of course, but in the aggregate it would be shocking if the children of rich kids did not do better in school than the children of poor kids, even if both groups enjoyed the same educational resources.
The gap-closing mindset leads to condemnation of schools serving low-income students as “failing” even when they might actually be doing a decent job. It generates layers of bureaucracy tasked with employing the latest pedagogical fads. It disregards the needs of gifted students looking for creative outlets. And it may ultimately undermine the case for school choice: When education reformers conclude that school choice does little to close test-score gaps, they will move on to alternative reforms that give less power to parents.
The success of an education policy should be measured not by how much it closes gaps, but by the degree to which it tailors instruction to individual student needs. School choice is probably the best way to pursue the latter goal, and I wish the Ryan plan—as positive as it is in most respects—had recognized that.