The Failed Education Reform Agenda
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
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.