As No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) accountability regime took over the nation’s schools under President George W. Bush and more and more charter schools were launched, I supported these initiatives. But over time, I became disillusioned with the strategies that once seemed so promising. I no longer believe that either approach will produce the quantum improvement in American education that we all hope for.
NCLB received overwhelming bipartisan support when it was signed into law by President Bush in 2002. The law requires that schools test all students every year in grades three through eight, and report their scores separately by race, ethnicity, low-income status, disability status and limited-English proficiency. NCLB mandated that 100% of students would reach proficiency in reading and math by 2014, as measured by tests given in each state.
Although this target was generally recognized as utopian, schools faced draconian penalties—eventually including closure or privatization—if every group in the school did not make adequate yearly progress. By 2008, 35% of the nation’s public schools were labeled “failing schools,” and that number seems sure to grow each year as the deadline nears.
Since the law permitted every state to define “proficiency” as it chose, many states announced impressive gains. But the states’ claims of startling improvement were contradicted by the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Eighth grade students improved not at all on the federal test of reading even though they had been tested annually by their states in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007.
Meanwhile the states responded to NCLB by dumbing down their standards so that they could claim to be making progress. Some states declared that between 80%-90% of their students were proficient, but on the federal test only a third or less were. Because the law demanded progress only in reading and math, schools were incentivized to show gains only on those subjects. Hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in test-preparation materials. Meanwhile, there was no incentive to teach the arts, science, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign languages or physical education.
In short, accountability turned into a nightmare for American schools, producing graduates who were drilled regularly on the basic skills but were often ignorant about almost everything else. Colleges continued to complain about the poor preparation of entering students, who not only had meager knowledge of the world but still required remediation in basic skills. This was not my vision of good education.
When charter schools started in the early 1990s, their supporters promised that they would unleash a new era of innovation and effectiveness. Now there are some 5,000 charter schools, which serve about 3% of the nation’s students, and the Obama administration is pushing for many more.
But the promise has not been fulfilled. Most studies of charter schools acknowledge that they vary widely in quality. The only major national evaluation of charter schools was carried out by Stanford economist Margaret Raymond and funded by pro-charter foundations. Her group found that compared to regular public schools, 17% of charters got higher test scores, 46% had gains that were no different than their public counterparts, and 37% were significantly worse.
Charter evaluations frequently note that as compared to neighboring public schools, charters enroll smaller proportions of students whose English is limited and students with disabilities. The students who are hardest to educate are left to regular public schools, which makes comparisons between the two sectors unfair. The higher graduation rate posted by charters often reflects the fact that they are able to “counsel out” the lowest performing students; many charters have very high attrition rates (in some, 50%-60% of those who start fall away). Those who survive do well, but this is not a model for public education, which must educate all children.
NAEP compared charter schools and regular public schools in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009. Sometimes one sector or the other had a small advantage. But on the whole, there is very little performance difference between them.
Given the weight of studies, evaluations and federal test data, I concluded that deregulation and privately managed charter schools were not the answer to the deep-seated problems of American education. If anything, they represent tinkering around the edges of the system. They affect the lives of tiny numbers of students but do nothing to improve the system that enrolls the other 97%.
The current emphasis on accountability has created a punitive atmosphere in the schools. The Obama administration seems to think that schools will improve if we fire teachers and close schools. They do not recognize that schools are often the anchor of their communities, representing values, traditions and ideals that have persevered across decades. They also fail to recognize that the best predictor of low academic performance is poverty—not bad teachers.
What we need is not a marketplace, but a coherent curriculum that prepares all students. And our government should commit to providing a good school in every neighborhood in the nation, just as we strive to provide a good fire company in every community.
On our present course, we are disrupting communities, dumbing down our schools, giving students false reports of their progress, and creating a private sector that will undermine public education without improving it. Most significantly, we are not producing a generation of students who are more knowledgable, and better prepared for the responsibilities of citizenship. That is why I changed my mind about the current direction of school reform.
Ms. Ravitch is author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,” published last week by Basic Books