The Failed Education Reform Agenda

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I recently gave a talk at ASU / GSV, where both former President George W. Bush and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan were there to tout the success of the reform agenda. Bush called his No Child Left Behind Act “one of the great pieces of Civil Rights legislation.” Duncan asserted that, with a big boost from his Race to the Top policies, reform has brought real improvement to our schools. Neither offers convincing evidence of success, and both overlook the serious damage done to students and teachers across America.

In a recent op-ed, Duncan alludes to increases in national NAEP scores to argue that the reform agenda “has worked very well.” Yet since No Child Left Behind was enacted, NAEP scores have barely budged — at all grade levels, across all subjects. Consider the compound annual growth rates in test scores since 2002:

Compound Annual Growth Rates

Fourth-grade Math .3%
Fourth-grade Reading <.1%
Eighth-grade Math .1%
Eighth-grade Reading <.1%
Twelfth-grade Math .1%
Twelfth-grade Reading 0%

Twelfth-grade scores are particularly telling, since these kids have lived and breathed NCLB since elementary school. These scores show no positive growth, despite excluding the 20% of students who have already dropped and, presumably, would drag down the average. If, as Duncan claims, the reform agenda has ‘worked very well,’ I wonder what he views as disappointing.

There’s more to the NCLB story than stagnant test scores. In seeking to improve our international standing in test scores, the only leadership we achieved was leading the world in the amount of desultory time that our kids spend preparing for and taking standardized tests. As NCLB pushed drilling and jingles into our schools, it drove out real learning, curiosity, and purpose. Morale among teachers has plummeted, with a recent Gallup survey showing 48% are actively looking for a different job, and most states report a shriveling pipeline of future teachers. Only 1/3rd of our high-school kids report feeling engaged. And employers generally agree that even our college graduates are generally unprepared for the workforce. Bottom line, the reform agenda set U.S. education back by decades.

There is a role for well-designed standardized testing, particularly in ensuring that our elementary school kids are developing core ‘learning how to learn’ skills. But these tests should serve as thoughtful diagnostic tools, not as summary measures of a child’s aptitude, a teacher’s competence, or a school’s quality. And we should ramp down their role in higher grades, giving students the time needed to develop the skills, mindsets, and distinctive proficiencies that help them thrive in a world of innovation. None of that happens in the barren world of high-stakes, test-driven reform. Time to put these policies out to pasture.

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Showing 5 comments
  • Craig Mueller

    I am with you Ted. The overly heavy reliance on standardized testing to determine how effectively students are learning has all but killed the passion for teachers to teach. Teaching to a test is not an art. It is an exercise that must be repeated over and over again. My guess is that retention is very low on the information covered with these standardized test measures.
    Applied learning that teaches valuable skills and has meaning for students is the way to go.

  • David Lenowitz

    I saw your presentation at ASU-GSV and saw President Bush and Secretary Duncan’s talks as well. I was equally horrified as you Ted. The most painful thing about the failure of NCLB, (which is likely to be followed by the failure of ESSA), is the inability of those who drove the agenda to admit it’s failure. We will make no progress in youth education until we teach students (and adults), that actual learning occurs best when we acknowledge our mistakes and correct our understanding and behavior. We have a long way to go, but we’re with you Ted.

  • DG Burns

    I have been teaching for 25 years and this year was honored to teach with one of the most passionate and innovative teachers in my career. What you would think administrators would pray for. But three weeks ago a kid snuck his phone into class during state standardized testing. He snapped a picture of one page of the test and posted it to a snapcaht with the heading “Testing Sucks.” The excellent teacher wasn’t the best test proctor and now he is gone. THIS is what is wrong with education.

  • Jim Wrye

    Ted, I’ve been enjoying your posts and talks after I heard you on Morning Edition. I look forward to reading your book, trusting teachers to engage students in meaningful ways with skills other than regurgitation is the right idea, and a heavy lift both politically and socially. However, I think you may have fallen into the testing trap you have rightly pushed back on in this particular post. NAEP is a key driver of increasing standardized testing. Billed as the “nation’s report card,” it is a test designed for students not to pass with little public oversight or transparency. The state rankings NAEP creates is one of the most powerful political drivers for increased standardized testing for governors and legislators. Yet even the highest ranked state of Massachusetts averaged 249 out of 500 for 4th grade Mathematics, and recorded barely half of all students proficient or above. Compared to what cohort or expectation does the DOE create this proficiency standard? How has the test changed in the decades it has been administered? Giving NAEP credence and longitudinal validity as you seem to do here may be counterproductive for your goals and perspective. High-stakes standardized testing is a serious problem for our country and our children, and NAEP certainly has a significant role in it.

  • Ambrose WB

    Thanks Ted. I’ve been working with the public school system in my area, at both elementary and high school levels for the past 4 years. But I wasn’t aware, until this school year, how much time is allocated for standardized testing. Even more alarming was the heightened levels of stress for both staff and students around testing periods.

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