By Samuelson, Robert J.
Newsweek , Vol. 156, No. 11
Byline: Robert J. Samuelson
Student motivation is the problem.
As 56 million children return to the nation's 133,000 elementary and secondary schools, the promise of "reform" is again in the air. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has announced $4 billion in Race to the Top grants to states whose proposals demonstrated, according to Duncan, "a bold commitment to education reform" and "creativity and innovation [that is] breathtaking." What they really show is that few subjects inspire more intellectual dishonesty and political puffery than "school reform."
Since the 1960s, waves of "reform" have failed to produce meaningful achievement gains. The most reliable tests are those given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The reading and math tests, graded on a 0-500 scale, measure 9-year-olds, 13-year-olds, and 17-year-olds. In 1971, the initial year for the reading test, the average score for high-school seniors was 285; in 2008 that score was 286. The math test started in 1973, when high-school seniors averaged 304; in 2008 the average was 306.
To be sure, some improvements have occurred in elementary schools. But what good are they if they're erased by high school? There's also been a modest narrowing in the high-school achievement gaps between whites, blacks, and Hispanics, although the narrowing generally stopped in the late 1980s. (Average scores have remained stable because, although blacks' and Hispanics' scores have risen slightly, the size of these minority groups has also expanded. This means that their still-low scores exert a bigger drag on the average. The two effects offset each other.)
Standard explanations of this meager progress fail. Too few teachers? Not really. From 1970 to 2008, the student population increased 8 percent while the number of teachers rose 61 percent. The student-teacher ratio has fallen from 27 to 1 in 1955 to 15 to 1 in 2007. Are teachers ill paid? Perhaps, but that's not obvious. In 2008 the average teacher earned $53,230; two full-time teachers married to each other and making average pay would rank among the richest 20 percent of households (2008 qualifying income: $100,240). Maybe more preschool would help. Yet the share of 3- and 4-year-olds in preschool has rocketed from 11 percent in 1965 to 53 percent in 2008. …