Magazine article The American Prospect

Why Bad Reforms Won't Give Us Good Schools

Magazine article The American Prospect

Why Bad Reforms Won't Give Us Good Schools

Article excerpt

School reform has become a major industry since the Reagan era, when the 1983 report A Nation at Risk judged U.S. schools to be so mediocre as to endanger the economic future of the country. Mayors and presidents, corporate leaders and small-business owners, parents and taxpayers have said again (and again and again): The primary purpose of public schools is to prepare students academically for a workplace that keeps our economy productive and competitive throughout the world.

Responding to scorching and unrelenting criticism, educators established standards-based curricula, monitored test scores, required students to repeat a grade or a subject, and rewarded (or punished) teachers and principals when test scores rose (or fell). These reforms have been compressed into a formula to ensure that urban, suburban, and rural schools produce graduates who are equipped with the knowledge and skills to secure high-paying jobs and help their employers compete in the global economy. Opinion polls find that parents and taxpayers are satisfied with this direction.

In search of the "one best system," corporate leaders, public officials, and parents of students have narrowed Americans' general view of what a "good school" is to a one-size-fits-all version. And that is bad for public education. Why?

Research and documentation to justify the one-size-fits-all good school are lacking. Although few pundits or critics have raised the issue, there is simply no evidence that rigid standards, uniform tests, and strict accountability have any long-term effects on students once they leave high school. Other considerations are also unsettling:

* The standardized tests that elementary and secondary students take bear little or no relationship to future job performance.

* The Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and similar instruments predict only how well high school students will do academically in their first year of college. They are useless in predicting whether students will finish college or how well they will do in future jobs.

* From the standpoint of the student's economic future, what really matters about schooling is the diploma: Employers use these credentials as a signal that an employee will be punctual, persistent, flexible, and well prepared for working in groups.

Another reason the current version of good schools is bad for public education is that undesirable outcomes are likely. Experience with similar ventures over the last quarter-century indicates that the following consequences will occur (and in many cases, they have already been reported in the media):

* Curriculum will narrow to match whatever content and skills are tested.

* Instructional time will be increasingly allocated to test preparation.

* Political pressure on policy makers will lead them to lower cutoff scores in order to reduce the mounting numbers of students who will fail tests and have to repeat grades.

* As test scores rise over time (while teachers get better at aligning instruction with what is on tests), policy makers will change the tests and scores will decline.

* Ethnic and racial gaps in academic achievement will persist.

All of these facts are well known within the educational research and policy making communities. Yet they are treated as secrets by academics and educational officials or as unnewsworthy by journalists. As a result, only one kind of good school has emerged in the public's mind and among many educators--even though the one-size-fits-all version is just one of many kinds.

Consider two elementary schools that I know well. School A is a quiet, orderly institution where both students and parents openly honor the teachers' authority. The principal and faculty seek out student and parental advice when making schoolwide decisions. The professional staff set high academic standards, establish school rules that respect differences among students, and demand proper study habits from the culturally diverse population. …

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