Is Educational Reform a Failure?
Finn, Chester E., Jr., Ravitch, Diane, USA TODAY
Recent months have witnessed more setbacks than gains in the quest to bind high academic standards into schooling and to "reinvent" U.S. education.
Reports from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicate that many U.S. students are underachieving. The mathematics assessment released in mid 1994 reported small gains at each trade level. Yet, the percentage of students who tested "below basic" remains appallingly high: 39% of fourth-graders, 37% of eighth-graders, and 36% of 12th-graders. Those meeting the "proficiency" standard remain lamentably few: 18% of fourth-grades, 25% of eighth-graders, and 16% of 12th-graders.
The 1994 reading assessment also yielded discouraging news. Since 1992, reading performance for fourth and eighth grades held steady, but dropped significantly for 12th-graders. The percentage of high school seniors who are "proficient" readers fell from 37 to 34%, and those "below basic" rose from 25 to 30%. NAEP reports generally get a lot of media attention. However, for the first time in memory, the Secretary of Education skipped the press briefing on the 1994 reading results, which contradicted the Clinton Administration's assertion that America has turned the corner on the problem of poor achievement, as well as apologists' claims that U.S. schools are better than ever.
Those never were very plausible conclusions, in light of persistent reports from colleges and employers about the week preparation of high school graduates crossing their thresholds. Moreover, they have been contradicted sharply by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, whose 1994 survey of the U.S. economy concluded that "the effectiveness of the primary and secondary education system, while highly variable, can broadly be characterized as mediocre at best."
If any proof is needed of the absence of standards in American elementary/secondary education, the mass confusion, irresolution, and conflict that currently envelop this topic should provide ample evidence. Among every state agreed to participate in Goals 2000, the Clinton Administration's major education reform initiative, designed to promote development of state and national standards. This program has hit rocky shoals, though, becoming a major battleground in the war over the Federal role in education. A number of freshman in the 104th Congress came to Washington determined to eliminate it, and the House of Representatives voted to eliminate all funding for it in Fiscal Year 1996. Although it may limp along--the Senate is friendlier--one scarcely can describe it as the centerpiece of anything significant.
This is no great loss. Goals 2000 is prescriptive in a variety of ways that undermine the ability of states and districts to carry out their own standards and accountability strategies. For instance, it prescribes the membership of state committees that are supposed to develop the state reform plans. It also includes extensive prohibitions on the uses of testing, which means that students will know that their test scores do not count for anything.
While almost every state welcomes new Federal resources, no state or district really needed a new Federal program to develop educational standards and accountability (that is, after all, the essence of their job), nor did they need the stimulus of relatively small amounts of cash to pay serious attention to the national education goals. Neither does participation in Goals 2000 guarantee that states will make progress toward those goals.
Perhaps the biggest furor was the storm that broke out over proposed national standards for the teaching of history. The U.S. Senate voted 99-1 to express its disapproved of the draft standards. Columnists and politicians declaimed against them. Though the Council for Basic Education subsequently issued revised guidelines for the overhaul of these standards, they are not likely to be able to dispel the criticism that surrounds the issue.
Some of the other national standards projects--in civics, geography, the arts, and foreign languages--had a friendlier reception. Although their recommendations generally are too long, too detailed, too ambitious, and almost complete bereft of the "performance" standards that would give them real traction, few have objected to their content.
Meanwhile, though, the idea of national standards is in grave trouble. Democrats remain hostile to any attempt link national standards to testing, and Republicans are just as hostile to anything that resembles a national school board. In the absence of meaningful performance standards and tests, it is doubtful that national content standards can have much influence. The exams students take remain especially important in determining what they study, and the uses to which test results are put have a lot to do with how hard they work. If students know that the quality of their schoolwork has no bearing ability to graduate, be accepted to college, and get a job, they will not care how they perform. So long as students make little effort in school, real achievement will remain low, no matter how elegant the documents produced by national organizations and government agencies.
Distinct ways of conceiving education reform have emerged in recent years, and the differences between them are growing sharper. One, commonly termed "systemic reform," operates on the assumption that reform efforts should be led by government and imposed from the top down. Its advocates believe that state (or Federal) authorities must be standards not merely for students learning, but for much else. Though undertaken in pursuit of higher standards and better results, systemic reform relies on uniform strategies to ensure that inputs everywhere are equal and all schools undertake similar activities. Its mechanism for making this happen is government resources and bureaucratic regulation.
The second welcomes decentralization control, entrepreneurial management, and grass-roots initiatives, within a framework of publicly defined standards and accountability. Under this approach, public officials establish standards and make assessments, then hold schools accountable for meeting performance goals, but do not themselves run the schools. This can be regarded as "reinventing" public education because, in this approach, schools may be run by diverse providers, not just by government agencies.
Education may be delivered may be delivered through charter schools (chartered by public authorities such as a state, city, or local school district); "opt out" schools (as in England) that secede from their local education agencies and run themselves with what amounts to a block grant of funds; contract schools (wherein a performance contract is negotiated between educational managers and a public agency); and choice programs (whereby students use scholarships or vouchers to attend the schools of their choice).
The reinvention paradigm takes for granted that students and families differ and should be free to match themselves to the schools that suit them best. It requires little bureaucracy and few regulations because it rejects the proposition that schools must be centrally managed according to a single formula. These two approaches are competing with each other, not just in Washington, but in the states. Systemic reform remains the favored strategy of the Clinton Administration and some educators, but the reinvention alternative is preferred in many other quarters--including by numerous elected officials, business leaders, and parents, as well as teachers and principals who welcome the possibility of breaking free from the stifling grip of central office bureaucracy.
The charter school idea, especially, is thriving. By 1995, 19 states had enacted explicit charter school laws. Nearly 250 such schools are in operation. and their numbers are rising. Not all charter laws are created equal, however, and several are so weak that they are unlikely to do much good, featuring an impressive facade, but no real substance. Some of these laws were supported by people who actually oppose charter schools on principle and had decided that the best way to defuse support for the idea was to promote a bill that only pretends to create them. Thus, teachers' unions, school board associations, and superintendents, if they can not defeat the charter bill altogether, generally do their utmost to keep it weak.
There was major progress on the school choice front in 1995, most of it in Ohio and Wisconsin. The latter's legislature agreed to expand Milwaukee's voucher program to include more children and permit attendance at church-affiliated schools. As revised, up to 15,000 low-income Milwaukee children (nearly all of them minorities) are able to attend any school within the city limits.
In Ohio, the legislature agreed to initiate a voucher pilot in 1996 for children in Cleveland, a city with a catastrophically bad school system that--under a Federal court order--was taken over by the state in early 1995. Here, too, church-affiliated schools are eligible recipients of up to 2,000 voucher-bearing youngsters. The primary beneficiaries of this reform will be low-income minority children.
Court tests are under way, and it is clear that choice's foes, having lost two significant political battles, will throw vast resources into the effort to get vouchers killed as a violation of the Constitution's "establishment clause." They are fighting tooth-and-claw against new voucher proposals, most notably in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia. Nevertheless, Wisconsin and Ohio deserve hearty applause from those who believe, as we do, that children should not be forced to attend a bad public school against their and their parents' will when a better school--public, private, or hybrid--is available not far away. We believe it is just a matter of time until youngsters from needy families in most of the country will be able to carry their vouchers (or scholarships or whatever they may be called) to any accredited school.
A third strategy for reinventing education is contract management of public schools. Though this remains controversial--Baltimore canceled its contract with Educational Alternatives, Inc. after three years, and EAI's mandate in Hartford has shrunk--it continues to spread. A private management firm is functioning as "superintendent of schools" in Minneapolis. The Edison Project has opened its first four schools and others are on line to follow. Sabis, an international group that has been running a school in Minnesota, added a second (charter) school in Springfield, Mass. Nashville-based Alternative Public School Strategies, after intense political and judicial tussles, is running one of three elementary schools in Wilkinsburg, Pa. More companies and communities surely will follow, probably including big corporate guns such as Disney, which is creating a school in Florida that many view as a prototype.
Reforming the Federal role
From the mid 1960s until the mid 1980s, American education in general and Federal policy in particular were characterized by a loose bipartisan consensus about what was wrong and what needed to happen. It was agreed that resources and services should be expanded, and poor and minority (and handicapped and non-English-speaking) children should be given greater access to those services. Equity was the main goal; shortage and denial were the perceived difficulties; and additional resources--usually channeled through Federal categorical programs--were the prescribed cure. There was no great difference between Democrats and Republicans over these assumptions, and, as a result, education seldom loomed large as a partisan issue in state and national elections.
In the 1980s, this consensus began to be displaced by another one: that weak achievement and poor quality were the central problems of U.S. elementary/secondary education; reform strategies should focus on student performance; such reforms would entail overturning hoary assumptions and long-established practices; and, although some of these reforms might require additional resources, the country generally was not getting its money's worth from the investment being made in education.
This new consensus was bipartisan, at least outside Washington. Several prominent Democratic governors--notably including Arkansas' Bill Clinton--played important roles in developing it. The highwater mark at the national level was the Charlottesville, Va., "summit" held by Pres. George Bush and the governors in 1989, the six national education goals set shortly thereafter, and the America 2000 strategy developed by former U.S. Education Secretary Lamar Alexander to move the country closer to those goals.
Congress, though, never really joined in this new consensus. Cheered on by the education establishment, it rejected America 2000 as Alexander had conceived it and instead enacted measures such as Goals 2000. "Equity," "inputs," "services," and uniform, top-down, regulatory approaches seemed to be coming back into vogue in Washington, the work of a Democratic Congressional majority that showed scant interest in what many governors, civic activists, and business leaders thought.
Then came the 1994 election. Today, in Washington at least, party differences are sharper with respect to education than at any time since the mid 1960s. This split showed signs of intensifying as the nation headed toward the 1996 elections. Pres. Clinton is proud of his record of getting massive education bills through Congress, and his administration seems committed to maintaining its present course. That includes continued reliance on systemic reform by way of more Federal programs, outlays, mandates, and regulations, and more of the dubious claims that U.S. education is finally "turning the corner" on quality and that nobody was serious about this issue until the Clinton Administration arrived in Washington.
Many Republicans, meanwhile, are taking a very different tack, embracing the second paradigm for education reform and pressing Washington to butt out. There is talk of abolishing the Department of Education, repealing Goals 2000, and turning categorical aid programs into block grants to states and communities or vouchers for parents.
The signs of political realignment are less than comprehensive, however. Defections by Republican legislators and governors contributed to the 1995 defeat or deferral of many promising school reinvention initiatives at the state level. In Washington, very little actually happened on the education front during the first year of the 104th Congress, despite a lot of talk and the introduction of innumerable bills.
We shall refrain from predictions, but a word of advice may be in order. It is easy to get so caught up in adult policy battles at the Federal and state levels as to lose track of why there is an education system in the first place--and for whose benefit it must operate. Schools do not exist primarily to employ grown-ups or give them things to argue about with one another. The nation has schools so that children can learn what they need to know in order to become successful adults themselves.
Some of today's debates seem remote from the educational needs of those children. Whether they come from comfortable suburbs and functional families or acute poverty and disrupted households, what youngsters require from formal education is remarkably similar and straightforward--yet often absent from the schools they attend. Above all, they need high standards and caring, competent adults who can help them make solid progress toward those standards. They need safe schools populated by people who want to be there and that nurture sound character and demonstrate good values. They need interesting things to read and do and engaging lessons taught by people who know the material and present it effectively. They need a curriculum that imparts essential skills and important knowledge. They need to know that the "real world" values and rewards good education.
It little avails children--or the cause of educational excellence--if grown-ups become so preoccupied with winning and losing that they forget why the game is being played.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Is Educational Reform a Failure?. Contributors: Finn, Chester E., Jr. - Author, Ravitch, Diane - Author. Magazine title: USA TODAY. Volume: 125. Issue: 2618 Publication date: November 1996. Page number: 22+. © 2009 Society for the Advancement of Education. COPYRIGHT 1996 Gale Group.
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