CRF Blog

School Reform Fails the Test

by Bill Hayes

In School Reform Fails the Test for the American Scholar, UCLA education professor argues that the school-reform movement has proved a failure by making “our teachers the problem and not the solution.”

No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have dramatically increased the influence of the federal government on public schools. Both programs require states to establish standardized testing programs, and federal funding often depends on the test results. If schools don’t meet certain performance criteria, they are subject to sanction and even closure. Race to the Top added a competitive grant program to the federal effort, requiring states to lift limits on charter schools and tie teacher evaluations to students’ test scores in order to be eligible for a significant one-time award of federal funds. Some philanthropies have also supported the reform agenda, and private advocacy groups have championed causes ranging from charter schools to alternative approaches to teacher credentialing to, most recently, overturning teacher tenure and union protections.

Not all those who identify themselves as reformers would subscribe to the redefinition of teaching and learning that concerns me, and some of those reformers are raising among their peers the same issues I am. But a dominant account does emerge from many influential reform reports and organizations, and it is supported by the U.S. Department of Education.

A core assumption underlying No Child Left Behind is that substandard academic achievement is the result of educators’ low expectations and lack of effort. The standardized tests mandated by the act, its framers contended, hold administrators and teachers accountable — there can be no excuses for a student’s poor performance. It’s true that some teachers don’t expect much of the young people in their charge, particularly students from low-income backgrounds and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. But because we know that so many factors contribute to student achievement, the strongest of which is parental income, the low expectations of some teachers cannot possibly account for all the disparities in academic performance. The act’s assumptions also reveal a pretty simplified notion of what motivates a teacher: raise your expectations or you’ll be punished — what a friend of mine calls the caveman theory of motivation. An even more simplistic theory of cognitive and behavioral change suggests that threats will lead to a change in beliefs about students, whether these beliefs come from prejudice or from pity. Still, No Child Left Behind’s focus on vulnerable students was important, and the law did jolt some low-performing schools into improving their students’ mastery of the basic math and reading skills measured by the tests.

But the use of such tests and the high stakes attached to them also led to other results that any student of organizational behavior could have predicted. A number of education officials manipulated the system by lowering the cutoff test scores for proficiency, or withheld from testing students who would perform poorly, or occasionally fudged the results. A dramatic example is the recent case of cheating in Atlanta, where school personnel all the way up to the superintendent were indicted.

Studies of what went on in classrooms are equally troubling and predictable. The high-stakes tests led many administrators and teachers to increase math and reading test preparation and reduce time spent on science, history, and geography. The arts were, in some cases, drastically reduced or eliminated. Aspects of math and reading that didn’t directly relate to the tests were also eliminated, even though they could have led to broader understanding and appreciation of these subjects. [more]