Where Education Reform Went Wrong

Where Education Reform Went Wrong

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was signed into law on January 8, 2002. NCLB was not the first attempt at reforming the education system in America. There have been reform efforts for as long as the United States has been a nation, and even longer. But in the modern era, NCLB is certainly the one education “reform” that has impacted the lives of Americans the most. It affects the way teachers teach and school administrators administer – in fact, it has an effect on their very livelihoods; it affects the way students learn, the content of the material they are presented with, and the amount of time they spend learning new material; it affects parents, employers, and everybody whose lives can be altered by changes in state and local budgets and tax policies; since it is often used as a campaign issue, it even affects who we elect to represent us. In short, it affects everybody in society. It affects the “output” of the education system, which is the whole idea behind it.

Race to the Top (RTTT) basically expands on concepts and policies of NCLB. It has been a fact of life in the education system since it was announced on July 24, 2009. Together, NCLB and RTTT represent an enormous increase in the federal government’s role in the process of educating our children.

Think about this for a minute. These life-altering “reforms” did not appear yesterday. We are well into the second decade of NCLB. It would be difficult to blame every problem in the education system on a “status quo” that existed before NCLB. Status quo now means life with NCLB and RTTT, not life before them. With this much history, can we begin to evaluate the effectiveness of these policies? I realize that the process of implementing these “reforms” is ongoing; but after more than twelve years, what do we have to show for the efforts?

I mentioned that education “reform” affects the “output” of the education system, and that this is what reform is intended to do. Has this been a success, a failure, or have the results been mixed? I used quotation marks around the word “reform” for a reason. According to the dictionary, the word “reform” always involves “improvement”. Change alone is not “reform”, but improvement is. With this clarification, I’ll skip the quotation marks whenever I mention reform throughout the rest of this post.

Are the results of reform an improvement or not? It is interesting to note that the government recently announced that after 5 years of RTTT, we still will have to wait more than a year longer before they will announce the results of the government’s measure of success or failure.

Perhaps we can measure the results based on what it is we have been trying to change. What problems did we identify in the pre-reform education system that we (collectively, through our representatives) decided to fix? In short, what were we trying to accomplish? In order to measure success or failure, we need to have standards (sound familiar?) of success to measure against. Have we accomplished, or are we in the process of accomplishing, what we set out to do? What are the standards we are seeking to accomplish?

If you take a closer look at that last question, you will see where NCLB and RTTT have gone wrong.

What are the standards we are seeking to accomplish? Seriously, does anybody have a list that we can collectively reach a consensus on? Are we trying to look better as a nation on international rankings? Those rankings sure come up a lot in discussions of why we need reform. Are we trying to hold teachers and individual schools accountable for the results, or the “output” of the system? That most certainly is a large part of it, and reform advocates are not afraid to say so. Are we trying to get every student into college? That could be part of it, because schools are being measured by the percentage of students deemed college-ready. Are we trying to prepare students according to what businesses say they are looking for in the current job market? That would seem likely, considering the amount of input that politicians are allowing business leaders to provide to education reform efforts. I could go on with more possible items on the list of things that we are trying to accomplish with reform, but here is the catch: Do we have a consensus on these items? Even if we could measure the success or failure based on the items on such a list, how can we be sure that the changes actually are improvements?

This is where reform efforts have gone wrong.

Missing from the entire equation are the goals of the education system itself. Before deciding on specifics of what to change, and how, we should have started with the purpose of the system itself. How in the world can we decide what and how to reform education, and then decide whether we are accomplishing what we are trying to accomplish, unless the changes are implemented in the context of the overall goals of the education system itself? The focus all along should have been on the goals of the education system, and then on methods for achieving those goals. That is not the approach that has been taken with NCLB and RTTT, and that is not even part of the discussion.

Let’s step back, and take a look at what the goals of the education system are. What are we trying to accomplish by even having an education system in the United States? I’m looking for general goals, not features of any specific type of system. The thought process for developing a list of goals should include the following questions: What are the benefits that we expect from an education system? Who receives the benefits? What is the best method for achieving those benefits? What are the costs of achieving the benefits, and what cost are we willing to pay for the benefits? Who pays the costs?

Based on comments that I have heard from many people, education professionals and non-educators alike, I would say that opinions vary widely on the answer to the question of what the overall goals are. Perhaps we are just trying to put our children into a position where they will be able to fend for themselves when they are “released” from the system. Perhaps we are simply trying to teach students to think for themselves. Perhaps we are trying to create “well-rounded” members of society. Perhaps we are trying to decrease poverty and crime rates through education. Perhaps we are trying to provide a means for people to escape a life of poverty. Perhaps elementary through high school should simply be thought of as a college prep course. Perhaps we are trying to fill the needs of the businesses which will be looking for new employees. Perhaps we are trying to prepare students to be able to adapt to a changing job market. Perhaps education should be geared towards job training, or perhaps emphasize learning a trade. Perhaps we are trying to promote the arts. Perhaps education should emphasize somebody’s idea of what the current needs of society are. Maybe we simply want to outperform other countries on standardized tests. Perhaps promoting equal opportunity and a chance at the American dream is a goal.

A lot of ideas; maybe you think that some are very good but others are questionable at best. What we need is a list of general goals such as these that we can point to when deciding on an approach for reforming the system. In which ways are proposed changes consistent with these goals, in which ways are they inconsistent, and are there options that would do a better job of meeting these goals? However, it is important that we come to a general consensus on what goals are included in the list. Without a consensus the result would be a power play, with those in power dictating personal preferences to everybody else. With a consensus, everybody involved has a stake in the outcome, is striving for the same results, and will more likely be happy to work towards these goals as a team instead of behaving like adversaries harboring resentments.

Once we have a list of the goals of the overall education system in place, a list that we can agree on enough to use as a working plan, we need the answers to two more questions before we can agree on a reform strategy. In what ways does the current system fail to meet these goals? What should not be changed about the current system because it is already meeting the stated goals?

A workable approach to education reform would use these three questions as a blueprint:

What are the overall goals of the education system?
In what ways does the current system fail to meet these goals?
In what ways does the current system succeed in meeting these goals?

This is not the approach that we have been taking, and as a result there is widespread opposition to the approach that is being taken. We have edicts that we are not allowed to question being handed down from the federal government; we have an increase in involvement from some large corporations with their own agendas, with corporate executives being asked to help write education policy while educators are being left out of the process; we have taxpayer-provided funding being taken away from schools that need help and given to schools that measure success according to the corporate bottom line; we have a mantra of accountability that many believe looks more like scapegoating; we have legitimate questions and concerns being dismissed as excuses to escape accountability; we have subjects being deemphasized or no longer offered to students because they don’t help schools reach reform goals; we have more school time being spent on high pressure testing and test preparation and less time on actual learning; we have created an incentive for teachers to “teach to the test” and teach only for immediate results; we have created an incentive for teachers and administrators to cheat on measurements, and some have succumbed to this pressure; we have an increase in confusion, polarization, and resentment.

With all of this, what successes have we achieved through NCLB and RTTT?

That is an irrelevant question, in my opinion, because these reforms were never based on overall goals that define the success and failure of the education system itself. I say we should agree on a set of goals for an education system first, and then we can measure the success and failure of reform according to those goals. Once we do that, and not before, we can decide where these reform efforts have worked and where they need to be changed.

A much better approach would have been to use a systematic approach towards defining goals and areas of improvement before undertaking these reform efforts. We failed to do that with NCLB and RTTT.


A version of this essay is included as a chapter in the book Making Education Work by Jerry Wyant. This book is available in both paperback and eBook formats.

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Jerry Wyant