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Current Education Reform: The Triumph of Ideology over Evidence

By Anthony Cody — September 24, 2009 3 min read

I have been reading a fascinating book - The Management Myth, Why the Experts Keep Getting it Wrong, in which author Matthew Stewart unveils the secrets of the field of modern management consultants, revealing that behind all the charts and claims of strategic planning, there is very little solid evidence, and even less of predictive value.

What good is a theory if it fails to predict the future? From the point of view of a scientist, we observe nature -- or human activity such as commerce or education - and make hypotheses that can be tested. Then, if we are diligent, we conduct experiments, or at the very least intensify our observations to see if our predictions are borne out.

Education in the United States remains in the throes of a monumental experiment engineered by ideologues of the left and right - No Child Left Behind. The basic theory that drives this project is that poverty and race should not matter in educational achievement, and that we can close any achievement gaps by “shining light” on them. Once this light has shone the inadequacies of these schools, they are to be inspired to improve by the threat of closure.

This approach asserts that we can drive change forward by creating marketplace alternatives, in the form of charter schools that are unconstrained by numerous disadvantages that weigh down traditional schools - such as the requirement that they accept all students in their attendance areas. We also drive change by continuously ratcheting up performance expectations until they reach levels that everyone agrees are impossible - 100% proficiency by 2014.

Here we are in 2009, with almost eight years of experience with this law. Surely by this time we should have ample evidence to determine if it has been successful.

If we were evaluating a medicine to see if it should be approved, the first question would be “Has it done the patient any good?” According to Chester Finn, one of NCLB’s most ardent defenders, it has not.

In a speech earlier this month, Finn states that,

despite all the reforming, U.S. scores have remained essentially flat, graduation rates have remained essentially flat, and our international rankings have remained essentially flat. You can find some upward blips but you can also find downward blips. Big picture, over 25 years, is flat, flat, flat. In other words, all the reforming has yielded little or nothing by way of stronger outcomes.

So the medicine has not worked on the primary measure chosen by its proponents.

How have the component strategies worked? Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top is requiring states to allow unlimited expansion of charters. Is there evidence that they have produced results? At best, the evidence is mixed. In Minnesota, an early pioneer in charters, there is scant evidence that they have achieved their goals. The Stanford University CREDO study released in July compared charter schools to their public school counterparts and found the charters actually had significantly worse performance in reading and math. In their favor, senior Hoover Institution fellow Caroline Hoxby recently released a report in which New York City charter schools are found to be better than traditional public schools. In the face of this confusion, Duncan has asserted that he is not for all charters - merely for successful ones. How clever! I am not sure how he will know in advance which ones will be successful once he has removed all barriers to their formation though. It seems as if this zeal for charters is motivated more by a belief that they should work than any actual evidence that they do -- especially for the ailment for which they are being prescribed.


The other step we would take in evaluating our new medicine would be to look for side effects. Here the evidence is unequivocal.

Chester Finn (with Diane Ravitch) wrote in 2007:

We should have seen this coming ... more emphasis on some things would inevitably mean less attention to others. ... We were wrong.
[If NCLB continues,] rich kids will study philosophy and art, music and history, while their poor peers fill in bubbles on test sheets. The lucky few will spawn the next generation of tycoons, political leaders, inventors, authors, artists and entrepreneurs. The less lucky masses will see narrower opportunities.

A teacher named Ellen posted the following comment on my blog this week, providing very solid evidence that this has already occurred. She works in a low-income school in California that is 87% Latino.

I can see the disparity on a daily basis, as the tight economy and the effects of NCLB with its relentless pursuit of annual "progress" narrow the scope of my students' education. Where once students had the opportunity to express themselves in art, music or organized sports, they are now forced into the straightjacket of language arts and math.

I am required to have a daily 2 1/2 hour language arts block (using a scripted program, no less) and a 1 1/2 hour math block. Science was recently added to this limited curriculum because it is now tested on the CSTs, but there are no hands-on experiments because of the time constraints and lack of equipment. Science consists of students reading from a textbook and answering multiple choice comprehension questions in a workbook.

We have zero funds for field trips for children who need it the most. Many of my students have never been farther than 10 miles from home and have very little understanding of the world beyond their violent barrio.

Even the annual zoo trip had to be canceled because the cost of bus transportation was almost doubled. Our fund raising efforts last year yielded $2500, which was used to buy instructional supplies for the classrooms.

Recently our school celebrated an increase in test scores, but teachers were castigated because the English Learner subgroup did not pass.

Many teachers at my school see the writing on the wall. By next year our school will be failing no matter how much we improve.
With all the talk about teacher accountability and pay tied to student achievement, is it any wonder that most of our staff is planning to move to schools in higher income areas?

If we assume good intent, the designers of NCLB thought their plan would lift students in poverty by improving their schools. They had their ideas, and their ideology to support them. But as we survey the results in our schools, especially those in areas of poverty, surely ideology alone is insufficient to continue down this path.

What do you think? What does the evidence reveal about No Child Left Behind? When will our politicians be held accountable for what they have done to our schools?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.