America’s Misguided Education Policy
Education is at a crossroads in the United States today. After eight years of the regime of No Child Left Behind, we are worse off than when we started. I say we are worse off because that federal legislation, which promised so much, has failed. Despite hundreds of millions or billions of dollars invested in testing and test prep materials, test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have barely budged.
Math scores are up, but they have risen more slowly than in the years preceding NCLB. Reading scores have not improved at all. The reading scores of eighth-grade students were the same in 2009 as they were in 1998. These are students who grew up with NCLB. They were tested regularly in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009. And they saw no gains on the federal test, which is intended as an audit of state scores.
NCLB, which is still alive even though it is not well, has had other corrosive effects. First, it encouraged states to dumb down their standards, in hopes of reaching the elusive goal of 100 percent proficiency. Second, it created utopian expectations, by mandating that all students would be proficient by 2014, a goal that was unattainable. Third, by setting an unrealistic goal, it has undermined public confidence in public education and set the stage for privatization. Fourth, it promoted the simpleminded belief that “accountability” meant “punishment.” If all students don’t reach proficiency, someone must be held accountable. Their school must be closed or taken over by some private entity or by the state. Heads must roll.
So, as states lowered their standards or rigged their testing systems, state scores rose handsomely, but the scores on the national tests did not. At the same time, the clamor for privately managed charter schools grew louder. Entrepreneurs discovered that they too could open charter schools, winning public acclaim while trumpeting their superiority over regular public schools. The charter school founders and advocates worked hard to avoid any linkage to “privatization,” but they were nonetheless busily engaged in demonstrating that private management would produce better results and higher test scores than public management of public schools.
Many, probably most, educators assumed that the election of Barack Obama would mean an end to the harsh and joyless culture created by NCLB and an end to efforts to undermine public education. They were wrong.
The Obama administration is as committed to accountability and choice as the George W. Bush administration. The Obama-Duncan Race to the Top fund offered nearly $5 billion to states in competitive grants if they only agreed to remove their caps of charter schools and to eliminate any legal barriers to evaluating teachers by test scores. Because the money was derived from the stimulus funds, the Race to the Top was never subject to Congressional authorization. It is unlikely that Congress would have approved these priorities, which please Republicans but are inconsistent with the customary Democratic support for equity.
The Obama administration has proposed to reauthorize NCLB by removing its name, eliminating the 2014 target for 100 percent proficiency, and relieving most districts from its regime of “measure and punish.” However, the administration proposes to target the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools — some 5,000 schools — for draconian action. They may be closed, they may be turned into charter schools or turned over to private management, or handed over to the state.
This approach is based directly on NCLB. It is harsh and punitive. There is no evidence that any of these “remedies” will produce better schools. Charter schools, for example, now enroll 3 percent of pupils; they range in quality from excellent to abysmal, and on the whole, they do not produce better performance than regular public schools.
Every low-performing school should be carefully evaluated to determine the reasons for its low performance. Where help is needed, the state should provide it. Education is a helping profession, one that teaches the importance of investing in improvement rather than punishment.
Federal education policy today is on the wrong track. The more we pursue the failed policies of the past, the more disappointed we will be. We must strengthen the education profession with better superintendents, principals, and teachers. We must improve curriculum, instruction, and assessment. It is time to think boldly and constructively about the real changes needed to strengthen and rebuild American public education. #
Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.