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The Nation | Education

Two Decades of School Reforms Take Us Back to the 1950s

February 18, 2001|Larry Cuban | Larry Cuban is a professor of education at Stanford University

STANFORD — Since "A Nation at Risk" judged U.S. schools to be mediocre enough to endanger the economic future of the country, school reform has become a major industry. In the past two decades, a coalition of corporate executives, public officials and business groups has pressed the remedy of imitating corporate organizations. Presidents, mayors, business executives and parents have repeatedly stressed that the primary purpose of public schools is to prepare students academically for an expanding job market that keeps the U.S. economy productive and globally competitive.

Toward that end, educators established standards-based curricula, monitored test scores, had students repeat a grade or a subject and rewarded or punished teachers and principals when scores rose or fell. This approach has become a state-driven formula for urban, suburban and rural schools. Yet, continued concentration on standards, tests and accountability hardly benefits students, the economy or the nation. Here's why:

* Based on past ventures, predictable consequences will occur.

Instructional time will be increasingly allocated to test preparation. Political pressure on policymakers will lead to easier tests or to the lowering of the cutoff passing score to reduce the number of students who fail to receive a diploma or repeat grades. Massachusetts, Virginia and Arizona have already done this.

If there is any agreement among standardized-test designers, it is that, over time, teachers and administrators become familiar with the skills being tested, allocate time to prepare their students and, voila!, test scores rise. Test makers then re-norm their tests to make them harder, and policymakers choose different tests. Voila! Test scores dip. Teachers are blamed, and the cycle repeats itself. Ethnic and racial gaps in academic achievement persist.

* Standardized tests and strict accountability matter little for either future job or long-term academic performance.

Because these tests are the tools that policymakers depend on to hold teachers, administrators and students responsible for their performance, there should be, at a minimum, convincing evidence supporting linkage between tests, future academic success and workplace performance. Very little exists.

Consider the standardized tests that elementary and secondary-school students take repeatedly as they move toward graduation. Employers seldom, if at all, use individuals' scores from these tests to screen applicants. No economist claims that these scores predict performance in the office or at the workbench. Ah, but there is the SAT (Scholastic Achievement Test).

The SAT (and similar instruments) predict something: how well students will do academically in their first year of college. These tests, however, cannot determine which students will get a degree or how well they will do as lawyers, engineers, teachers or chefs. What matters far more than test scores is whether students receive diplomas and other credentials. Employers use these as evidence that applicants come to work on time, are persistent, flexible and work well with others. Credentials matter because they signal employers that entry-level workers have certain basic attitudes and behaviors that can be molded to company needs.

* A one-size-fits-all strategy disregards diversity in U.S. schools.

About one in 10 schools in the nation exceeds the high academic standards and threshold for test scores laid out by its states. Another four to five either meet or come close to their state's standards and cutoff scores. The rest don't. Most of these schools are located in urban and rural districts with concentrations of poor families.

Yet, the current recipe for school reform is to hammer this three-tiered system of academic achievement into one mold. It seeks to lift the bottom: urban and rural students who fail, drop out or do poorly on standardized tests. Concentrating on those students is important not only on economic but also on moral grounds. Forcing all schools to fit into the same mold, however, ignores students who already meet or exceed the standards. A one-size-fits-all formula compresses all schools into one version of a good school: a 1950s traditional school with high test scores.

For nearly 200 years, the public has wanted schools to do many things. Schools are expected to create communities of children in which learning and decency are valued; to build literate citizens who judge wisely and who contribute to their communities; and to prepare students to become useful workers for a bustling economy.

It is this latter goal that drives the current one-size-fits-all school reforms endorsed by President George W. Bush, governors and mayors. Creating adults who can think independently, make wise decisions, participate in their communities and care for those who are different from themselves may be mentioned in speeches but is hardly central to the reform agenda of the last two decades.

What should be done?

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