School & District Management Opinion

Why We’re Still ‘At Risk’

By Ronald A. Wolk — April 20, 2009 11 min read
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Our new president has looked into the abyss of our current economic, energy, environmental, and health-care policies and promises to challenge the fundamental assumptions on which they are based. He admonishes us to join him in thinking and acting boldly.

We can only hope he feels the same way about education policy.

After nearly 25 years of intensive effort, we have failed to fix our ailing public schools and stem the “rising tide of mediocrity” chronicled in 1983 in A Nation at Risk. This is mainly because the report misdiagnosed the problem, and because the major assumptions on which current education policy—and most reform efforts—have been based are either wrong or unrealistic.

Most of the people running our public education systems and leading the reform movement are knowledgeable, dedicated, and experienced. But they are so committed to a strategy of standards-based accountability that different ideas are marginalized or stifled completely.

One could write a book about each of the five major assumptions on which education policy rests, but in this limited space, a few brief paragraphs will have to suffice.

Assumption One: The best way to improve student performance and close achievement gaps is to establish rigorous content standards and a core curriculum for all schools—preferably on a national basis.

Standards-based accountability has been the national school reform strategy for nearly two decades. It is essentially a “get tough” strategy made tougher by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. By all measures, it has not lived up to its promise, and the reason is that it is based on the premise that if we demand high performance and educational excellence, schools, teachers, and students will somehow “just do it.” It is a strategy that basically expects schools to be highly structured institutions with uniform practices and policies, where a common version of education is delivered to all students.

Standardization and uniformity may work with cars and computers, but it doesn’t work with humans. Today’s student body is the most diverse in history. An education system that treats all students alike denies that reality.

The issue is not whether standards are necessary. Schools without standards are unacceptable. Society should indeed hold high expectations for all students, but those expectations should reflect the values of the family and society—doing one’s best, obeying the rules, and mutual respect—and not simply the archaic academic demands of college-admissions offices. We should be preparing young people for life, not just for college.

Standards don’t prepare students for anything; they are a framework of expectations and educational objectives. Without the organization and processes to achieve them, they are worthless. States have devoted nearly 20 years to formulating standards to be accomplished by a conventional school model that is incapable of meeting them. We will make real progress only when we realize that our problem in education is not one of performance but one of design.

Assumption Two: Standardized-test scores are an accurate measure of student learning and should be used to determine promotion and graduation.

The standards-based-accountability strategy, not surprisingly, has led to the alarming overuse of standardized tests, even in the opinion of some test-makers and psychometricians.

Some measures of accountability are necessary in any endeavor that spends public money and is responsible for an important societal mission. But is testing all students virtually every year really necessary to determine whether the system is working effectively and the money spent well? If test scores are the accepted indicator, schools have not been meeting the needs of students for the past couple of decades. So why spend more money and time on constant testing to tell us what we already know—especially when standardized tests do a poor job of measuring real learning, don’t assess most of the characteristics valued by parents and the larger society, and contribute almost nothing to the process of teaching and learning.

If the purpose of standardized testing is to measure student achievement so teachers can help individual students learn better, it fails miserably. Standardized-test scores tend, instead, to say more about a student’s socioeconomic status than about his or her abilities. If testing is to have a positive effect on student achievement, it should be formative testing that is an integral part of classroom teaching and learning.

The most disturbing aspect of today’s standardized testing grows out of the “get tough” strategy’s emphasis on high-risk tests. Using standardized-test scores to determine promotion and graduation is unconscionable. A recent Texas study confirms the negative impact of high-risk testing on students. The report notes that 135,000 high school students drop out each year, and that “the state’s high-stakes accountability system has a direct impact on the severity of the dropout problem.” Teachers complain that they are compelled to devote valuable instructional time to preparing students for the test. They argue that the demand of ubiquitous accountability testing tends to narrow the curriculum. And they say that by teaching to the test, as they are expected to do, they are forced to turn education into a game of Trivial Pursuit.

Except in school, people are judged by their work and their behavior. Few of the business and political leaders who advocate widespread use of standardized testing have taken a standardized test since leaving college. It is probably a safe bet that the majority of them, even after 16 years of formal education, could not pass the tests they require students to pass.

“But I took those courses years ago,” they say. “I can’t remember all that stuff.” Exactly.

A common justification for standardized testing is that it’s the best proxy for student achievement we have until something better comes along. The performance-based assessment used in many charter schools (and now statewide in Rhode Island and New Hampshire) is better.

Assumption Three: We need to put highly qualified teachers in every classroom to assure educational excellence.

A great idea! If we could do that, we’d be a long way to solving our education problem.

But it won’t happen for decades, if ever.

As a host of studies over the past 25 years have revealed, the teacher pipeline is broken at several points. We don’t attract enough of the brightest young people into teaching; we don’t prepare them well for the job; many find their working conditions and compensation unacceptable; and teachers are not treated as professionals.

Highly effective teachers are more crucial to the success of standards-based accountability than anything else. Without enough of them, the strategy can’t work. As any reasonable person would have anticipated, we missed the NCLB goal of having a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by 2006. Improving teaching is as difficult as improving student achievement.

More accountability is again seen as a major part of the solution: more-rigorous certification, tougher teacher evaluation, and higher teacher pay. But certification guarantees a high-quality teacher about as much as a driver’s license guarantees a good driver. Tougher evaluation would help get rid of ineffective teachers, but it’s hard to see how it would produce more good teachers. Higher pay is fine, but it is no more likely to improve teaching any time soon than raising pilots’ pay would make flying safer.

If we want effective teaching, we should change the ways schools are organized and operated, and shift the teacher’s primary role from an academic instructor to an adviser, someone who helps students manage their own education.

A rational system would redesign itself and make organizational and procedural changes that optimize the positive influence of good teachers and minimize the negatives. Creating opportunities for teachers to work together, to teach in teams, to share in professional development, and to be more involved in educational decisionmaking are ways to bring out the best in teachers.

Again, there are examples on the ground that such an approach works.

Assumption Four: The United States should require all students to take algebra in the 8th grade and higher-order math in high school in order to increase the number of scientists and engineers in this country and thus make us more competitive in the global economy.

This assumption has become almost an obsession in policymaking arenas today. Requiring every student to study higher-order math is a waste of resources and cruel and unusual punishment for legions of students. It diverts attention away from the real problem: our failure to help kids become proficient readers and master basic arithmetic.

The United States must indeed produce more scientists and engineers to compete in a global economy. But it is fallacious to assume that we can accomplish that by requiring every student to take algebra in the 8th grade and higher-order math through high school. It is like believing that by requiring high school students to take a few courses in painting, we will make them all artists.

Most young people who go into science and engineering are well on their way by the time they start high school, because they become hooked on science or math in the early grades and do well in mathematics in elementary and middle school. Some will go on to become scientists and engineers; others will not. To expect otherwise is unreasonable.

If the nation wants more scientists and engineers, then educators need to find ways to awaken and nourish a passion for those subjects well before high school, and then offer students every opportunity to pursue their interest as far as they wish.

Assumption Five: The student-dropout rate can be reduced by ending social promotion, funding dropout-prevention programs, and raising the mandatory attendance age.

Arguably, the dropout rate is the most telling evidence of public school failure. Nearly a third of entering high school freshmen drop out. The percentage is higher for blacks, Hispanics, and English-language learners. And in many urban districts, the dropout rate borders on the horrendous.

Most students drop out of school for legitimate reasons, and trying to talk them out of it with “just stay in” programs, or forcing them to attend for an additional year or two, makes no sense. The “get tough” strategy of high standards, rigorous curricula, and more testing has not lowered the dropout rate and, as the Texas study cited shows, probably increases it.

Dropping out of school is not an impulsive decision. The process begins long before high school, often by the 4th or 5th grade, when courses begin to be content-heavy and students can no longer get by with the ability to “decode” English, but must be able to understand what they read. If scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are reliable measures, only about a quarter of 4th graders can read proficiently, and the percentage declines in the 8th and 12th grades.

Students who fail early and often come to accept failure as inevitable and are on the path to dropping out as soon as they can. Probably a third of students who plan to drop out have made up their minds by the 8th grade and mark time until they can legally leave school.

To reduce the dropout rate, we must first understand and accept why students choose to leave school. The reasons most often given are boredom, personal or family problems, and inability to understand and do the work required. A smaller percentage of students drop out because they find school to be a waste of time; these often are young people with the ability to succeed in school but who find that what is offered in the classroom doesn’t interest or challenge them. (Some years ago, a survey of students asked what word they would use to define school. “Boring” won hands down.)

The key to graduating is learning; the key to learning is motivation. There are innovative public schools that graduate most of their students because they personalize education, encourage students to pursue their interests and build on that enthusiasm, and offer multiple opportunities to learn instead of a one-size-fits-all education.

President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan should open a second front in this war on mediocrity and failure.

We need to continue making every effort to improve the existing public schools. They will enroll most of our young people for many years to come.

Simultaneously, we should pursue a parallel strategy of creating new, innovative schools and giving them the autonomy and resources to explore new ideas. These new schools can be a much-needed research-and-development sector for the conventional system.

Secretary Duncan should support a national effort patterned after Renaissance 2010, the program he launched in Chicago to replace failing schools with new, diverse models different from conventional schools and from each other.

It is neither wise nor necessary to bet the future on a single reform strategy, especially when hundreds, perhaps thousands, of schools are demonstrating every day that there are other and more successful ways to help children learn and succeed.

But we can pursue two strategies only if we act to assure that the dominant strategy does not smother the fledgling movement in its crib.

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Special coverage marking the 25th anniversary of the landmark report A Nation at Risk is supported in part by a grant from the Broad Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 2009 edition of Education Week as Why We’re Still ‘At Risk’


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