Education Opinion

Perspective: Still Tinkering

By Ronald A. Wolk — November 12, 2004 3 min read

We’ve spent more than two decades trying to improve public schools and raise student achievement, the longest sustained reform period in history. We haven’t made significant progress. Willie Herenton, mayor of Memphis, Tennessee, and once superintendent of that city’s schools, told fellow mayors at their October summit on urban education that “the school budget keeps going up, and student performance keeps going down.”

Our education system is not as productive or successful as it needs to be, but no single reform effort has worked.

School administrators and teachers don’t like to hear that kind of criticism. They feel they are being blamed for problems they didn’t create and cannot solve. And, for the most part, they’re right.

We are in a bind. Our education system is not as productive or successful as it needs to be, but no single reform effort has worked. More than 25 percent of our students (and twice that number in many urban districts) continue to drop out. Most students do not achieve proficiency in reading, math, or science, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And standardized test scores tend to decline between 4th and 12th grades.

In the late 1980s, state and federal leaders successfully launched our nation’s de facto reform strategy: Set high standards, hold students accountable for mastering them, test regularly to assess progress, and attach consequences based on performance. A similar approach had helped American businesses compete with Germany and Japan, and it was widely expected to turn the tide in education. In 2002, President Bush and Congress “kicked it up a notch” with No Child Left Behind. There is disagreement over how much progress has been made, but—for good or ill—states have now identified a stunning number of “poorly performing schools.”

The paradox is that we want to reinvent our schools for the new century without making fundamental changes. We prefer tinkering our way to Utopia. If we truly rethink what we want schools to achieve and seriously analyze the premises on which the U.S. education system is built, we might realize that tinkering won’t get us there. Consider some of the major premises:

• Students should be grouped according to age and move sequentially through a common curriculum.

• There is a comprehensive, detailed, grade-specific body of knowledge (i.e., academic content standards and the curriculum) that children need if they are to be successful in life and, therefore, must master.

• That body of knowledge must be segregated into distinct disciplines, or subject areas, that are taught separately.

• Because there is so much knowledge to master and school is the only place students can learn, they should be required to spend six or so hours a day in school until age 16.

• Teachers are responsible for educating children—generally by providing them with the information dictated by the standards and the curriculum.

• Standardized tests alone adequately measure skill development and academic achievement in young people and should determine promotion and graduation.

The great majority of policymakers, educators, and even reformers accept these fundamental principles almost without question. Because they are largely a given in most state and district efforts to improve schools, reform is confined to the margins.

We’re often unclear about what we expect of our schools, but I’d argue that there are a few primary goals. Schools should help kids learn to think critically and creatively; teach them to gather, analyze, and assess information, then draw logical conclusions from that information and defend their conclusions publicly; stimulate students’ curiosity and expose them to the humanities and sciences; and help them develop the commonly agreed-upon values of good human beings and responsible citizens.

An education system built on the premises listed above will never accomplish these goals.