The education reform movement that started with George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law is dead. It died because every strategy it imposed on the nation’s schools has failed. From Bush’s No Child Left Behind to Obama’s Race to the Top to Bill Gates’ Common Core State Standards to Trump’s push for school choice, the reformers have come up empty-handed.
The “reformers” relied on the business idea that disruption is a positive good. I call them “disruptors,” not reformers. Reformers have historically called for more funding, better trained teachers, desegregation, smaller class sizes. The disruptors, however, banked on a strategy of testing, competition, and punishment, which turned out to be ineffective and harmful.
Congress passed Bush’s No Child Left Behind law in 2001 based on his claim that there had been a “Texas miracle.” Test every child every year in grades 3-8, he said, reward the schools where scores went up, punish those where scores did not, and great things happen: scores rise, graduation rates increase, and the gaps between racial groups get smaller. We now know that it was empty talk: There was no Texas miracle. But every public school in the nation continues to be saddled with an expensive regime of annual standardized testing that is not found in any high-performing nation.
President Barack Obama doubled down on Bush’s punitive approach with his “Race to the Top.” In 2009, this $5 billion program offered states a chance to win hundreds of millions of dollars if they evaluated teachers by the test scores of their students, closed or shook up schools with low test scores, increased the number of privately managed charter schools, and adopted the Common Core State Standards. This combination was supposed to lift the test scores of all students. It didn’t.
Then came Betsy DeVos, touting the glories of school choice, including privately-run charters, vouchers for religious schools, and online charter schools. Congress gave her $440 million to expand charters, which she has invested in corporate charter chains that replace locally governed public schools.
In response to federal mandates, states and districts spent billions of dollars on testing, crowding out untested subjects like history and science and reducing time for recess and play. They spent billions more to adopt the Common Core standards, along with new online testing, software and hardware.
Test scores on the federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress—known as “the Nation’s Report Card—have been stagnant for the past decade. The scores of the lowest-ranked students declined.
On the latest international test, called PISA (Program in International Student Assessment), the scores of American students were unchanged over the past decade. American students have never done well on international tests, but it is clear that the test-and-punish strategies of the past twenty years did not vault U.S. students to “the top.”
Charter schools on average do not get higher test scores than public schools, and in some states—like Ohio and Nevada—charters dominate the state’s list of the lowest performing schools. Some charter schools get high test scores, but they usually get high scores by excluding students with disabilities and English learners or by high attrition rates.
Voucher studies in Louisiana, Ohio, Indiana, and the District of Columbia found that students in voucher schools actually lost ground compared to their peers in public schools. This is not surprising since some voucher schools have uncertified teachers and are free to teach a curriculum that mixes facts and religious stories.
Milwaukee has had vouchers for religious schools for two decades and charters for three decades. All three sectors get the same poor results. Milwaukee is one of the lowest performing districts in the nation.
New Orleans is the only all-charter school district in the nation. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a white Republican legislature imposed an experiment on a majority African American city. School enrollment declined from 65,000 before the storm to 48,000 a dozen years later. The latest state scores rated 49% of the city’s charter schools as D or F, based on their academic performance. The New Orleans district scores are below the state average, and Louisiana is one of the lowest performing states in the nation.
For almost twenty years, the Bush-Obama-Trump program of standardized testing, punitive accountability, and school choice has been the reform strategy. It has utterly failed.
So the question remains: How do we improve our schools? We begin by recognizing that poverty and affluence are the most important determinants of test scores. This strong correlation shows up on every standardized test. Every standardized test is normed on a bell curve that reflects family income and education; affluent kids always dominate the top, and poor kids dominate the bottom. Nearly half the students in this country now qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, which is the federal measure of poverty. We can ameliorate the impact of poverty on children and families by making sure that they have access to nutrition, medical care, and decent housing. Pregnant women need medical care to ensure that their children are born healthy.
If the billionaires supporting charter schools and vouchers are serious about improving education, they would insist that the federal government fully fund the education of students with disabilities and triple the funding for schools in low-income districts. Teachers should be paid as the professionals that they are, instead of having to work at second or third jobs to make ends meet. Teachers should write their own tests, as they did for generations. States and districts should save the billions now wasted on standardized testing and spend it instead to reduce class sizes so children can get individualized help from their teacher.
Children and schools need stability, not disruption. They need experienced teachers and well-maintained schools. All children need schools that have a nurse, counselors, and a library with a librarian. Children need time to play every day. They need nutrition and regular medical check-ups.
All of this is common sense. These are reforms that work.