CRF Blog

School ‘Reform’: A Failing Grade

by Bill Hayes

Writing in School ‘Reform’: A Failing Grade in the New York Review of Books, Diane Ravitch delivers a scathing critique of current efforts at school reform. Her article is ostensibly a review of two books: Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools by Steven Brill and As Bad as They Say?: Three Decades of Teaching in the Bronx by Janet Grossbach Mayer. Brill’s book, which is in the reformer camp, she dismisses: “Brill’s book is actually not about education or education research. He seems to know or care little about either subject.” Mayer’s book she likes: It “draws on the deep experience of a compassionate teacher who finds fault not with teachers, unions, or students, but with a society that refuses to take responsibility for the conditions in which its children live and learn — and who has demonstrated through her own efforts how one dedicated teacher has improved the education of poor young people.”

Using Brill’s book as a foil, Ravitch devotes the bulk of the review to debunking the arguments of the reformers. Her review is well worth reading.

A decade ago, President George W. Bush satisfied the demand for testing and accountability by proposing the legislation now known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), passed by Congress in 2001 and signed into law by President Bush in January 2002. It mandated that every public school in the nation must test all children in reading and mathematics from grades three through eight and classify the scores by racial and ethnic groups (white, African- American, Latino, Asian-American, Native American, etc.), low-income students, students with disabilities, and students with limited English skills. By 2014, every student in every category was expected to reach proficiency in those subjects, as defined by each state and measured by standardized tests selected by each state, or the school would face a series of escalating sanctions, culminating in firing part or all of the staff, closing the school, or handing control of the school over to the state or to private management.

Because of its utopian goals, coupled with harsh sanctions, NCLB has turned out to be the worst federal education legislation ever passed. Recently, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan predicted that more than 80 percent of the nation’s public schools would be labeled “failing” this year by federal standards, including some excellent schools in which students (usually those with disabilities) were not on track to meet the target. By 2014, if the law is unchanged, very few public schools will not be labeled “failures.” No nation has ever achieved 100 percent proficiency for all its students, and no state in this nation is anywhere close to achieving it. No nation has ever passed a law that would result in stigmatizing almost every one of its schools. The Bush-era law is a public policy disaster of epic proportions, yet Congress has been unable to reach consensus about changing it.

The Obama administration has offered to grant waivers from the onerous sanctions of NCLB, but only to states willing to adopt its preferred remedies: privately managed charter schools, evaluations of teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores, acceptance of a recently developed set of national standards in reading and mathematics, and agreement to fire the staff and close the schools that have persistently low scores. None of the Obama administration’s favored reforms — remarkably similar to those of the Bush administration — is supported by experience or evidence. [more]