The education reform movement is dead. It died because every strategy it imposed on the nation’s schools has failed. From Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to Obama’s Race to the Top to Bill Gates’ Common Core State Standards to Trump’s push for school choice, the reformers have come up empty-handed.
The “reformers” should more aptly be called “disruptors” because they relied on the business idea that disruption is a positive good. They banked on a strategy of testing, competition, and punishment, which turned out to be ineffective and harmful.
The real education reformers have historically called for more funding, better-trained teachers, desegregation, and smaller class sizes.
Congress passed Bush’s NCLB in 2001 based on the claim that there had been a “Texas miracle.” Test every child every year in grades 3-8, reward the schools where scores went up, punish those where scores did not, and great things will happen—scores will rise, graduation rates will increase, and the gaps between racial groups will get smaller.
There was no Texas miracle. Nevertheless, every public school in the nation continues to be saddled with an expensive regime of annual standardized testing that is not found in any high-performing nation.
Obama doubled down on Bush’s punitive approach with his Race to the Top. In 2009, this $5 billion boondoggle offered states a chance to win hundreds of millions of dollars if they evaluated teachers by the test scores of their students, closed or shook up the schools with low test scores, increased the number of privately managed charter schools, and adopted the Common Core State Standards. This combination was supposed to lift the test scores of all students. It didn’t.
Then came Trump’s selection for Sec. of Education, Betsy DeVos, touting the glories of school choice, including privately-run charters, vouchers for religious schools, and online charter schools. Congress gave her $440 million to expand charters, which she invested in corporate charter chains that replaced locally governed public schools.
In response to all of these federal mandates, what did we get? States and districts that spent billions of dollars on testing, crowding out untested subjects like history and science, and reducing time for recess and play. They spent billions more to adopt the Common Core standards, along with new online testing, software, and hardware.
Test scores on the federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—known as “the Nation’s Report Card”—have been stagnant for the past decade. The scores of the lowest-ranked students declined.
On the latest international test, called PISA (Program in International Student Assessment), the scores of American students were unchanged over the past decade. American students have never done well on international tests, but the test-and-punish strategies of the past twenty years did not vault U.S. students to “the top.”
Charter schools do not get higher test scores than public schools, and in some states, charters dominate the state’s list of the lowest-performing schools. (Some charter schools do get high test scores, but usually by excluding students with disabilities and English learners and by high attrition rates.)
For almost twenty years, the Bush-Obama-Trump program of standardized testing, punitive accountability, and school choice has been the reform strategy. It has utterly failed!
So, how do we improve our schools? We begin by recognizing that poverty and affluence are the most critical determinants of test scores. This strong correlation shows up on every standardized test.
If the billionaires supporting charter schools and vouchers are serious about improving education, they will insist that the federal government fully fund the education of students with disabilities and triple the funding for schools in low-income districts.
Teachers should be paid as the professionals that they are. Teachers should write their tests, as they did for generations. States and districts should save the billions now wasted on standardized testing and spend it instead to reduce class sizes so children can get individualized help from their teacher.
Children and schools need stability, not disruption. They need experienced teachers and well-maintained schools. All children need schools that have a nurse, counselors, and a library with a librarian. Children need time to play every day. They need nutrition and regular medical check-ups.
All of this is common sense. These are reforms that work.
(Reprinted with the permission of Dr. Diane Ravitch. Her new book is Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools.)