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Useless Education Reform May 10, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education.
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In 1983, educational reformers published research that garnered national attention. Entitled A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, the book reinforced the idea that our schools were utterly failing and it stimulated waves of reform measures. The currently ubiquitous high stakes testing including the federal No Child Left Behind Act and various state testing regimes are the culmination of these reform movements.

But this chart released last week by National Assessment of Educational Progress suggests there never was a crisis and that all the reform adds up to a hill of beans.


Contrary to the claims of A Nation at Risk, our educational system was not an utter failure in the 1970’s and apparently the reforms since then have produced only modest improvements at best. High stakes testing has not made much of a difference. 9-year-olds are doing a bit better in reading and math but not the upper grades—average scores for 17 year olds really haven’t budged.

To be fair, it is a bit too early to judge the effects of NCLB since it has only been operative since 2002. But there is not much evidence here of improvement.

This reinforces the point that critics of school reform have made over the years. The movement toward higher standards and accountability was largely manufactured by conservatives and business interests intent on undermining support for public education by blaming schools (specifically teachers and especially teacher’s unions) for a variety of ills, and denying the influence of poverty and school funding inequities.

Indeed our educational system is failing compared to other developed nations. But it fails because of poverty, children’s lack of access to health care, inequitable school funding, and an anti-intellectual environment that views education as a meal ticket rather than something intrinsically valuable.



1. Ian Duckles - May 12, 2009

No discussion of educational reform can be complete without taking note of who stands to profit from various educational reform policies. I particularly like to see how well the Bush family did under the NCLB legislation.

2. melindalucampbell - May 12, 2009

Dwight, I concur with your comment that one reason for the apparent failure of American education is “an anti-intellectual environment that views education as a meal ticket rather than something intrinsically valuable.” This seems to be a better explanation of why many of the students who end up in my classes (and I am not necessarily singling out Mesa here) are rather poor students who enter a college class with academic abilities equivalent to a 6th- or 7th-grade student. They have engaged with the curriculum of their previous courses only to the extent that they needed to do in order to pass the course. There is no real lust for knowledge, no desire to know what others have said and thought about, no thrill in contemplating what brilliant minds have achieved–not unless there is some “prize in the package”–a degree that will help them make more money or get a nod of respect from their friends and family. I am acutely aware of this when I am teaching: There I am, working hard to explain difficult or abstract (but interesting!) material, performing like some trained animal, jumping through hoops held higher and higher in the attempt to come up with creative examples and analogies that make complicated ideas simpler, and all the while the students are sitting there, bored or agitated, looking at the clock, glancing at their cell phones or text-messaging under the desk (OK, maybe there are one or two engaged students sitting in front, hanging on my every word) until I say, “and THIS WILL BE ON THE TEST!” Suddenly everyone is interested, jotting down notes, asking questions. I have to bribe my students with extra-credit points to do things, such as attending relevant lectures, that they should want to do on their own. If I say I will give an extra-credit point for asking an interesting question in class, students who would otherwise remain silent are now waving their hands to be called on. My question is, how can we get students to care about something that is not a “meal ticket,” a “prize,” or an immediate source of sensory pleasure? Maybe Plato was right; not everyone belongs in the “academy”: Vocational schools may just be the correct path for the future.

3. Ian Duckles - May 12, 2009

I thought the suggestion of vocational schools was quite interesting. As an undergraduate I minored in German and was fascinated to learn about their alternative educational system in which there was not an automatic expectation that everyone would go to college. Perhaps the only problem with a vocational school model is that it is not clear if there are many skilled well-paying jobs out there. By that I mean that I am concerned that we have outsourced too many of these sorts of jobs to make a vocational school model work (I have no evidence one way or the other, but it seems like this could be an issue).

4. Dwight Furrow - May 12, 2009

I think there is another problem with the vocational model. It tends to put people onto the vocational track too quickly.

Melinda’s experience with unmotivated students is widely shared of course. But some of those students do find something to turn them on eventually, although in some cases it takes many years. Having an institution, such as a community college, where students who lack direction can experiment is an enormously valuable cultural resource. Our society benefits greatly from giving people second and third chances. This is especially true given the paucity of jobs that don’t require college-level skills, as Ian points out.

Our educational system is set up to encourage the expectation that, when you turn 18, you are supposed to know what is important and what you want to do with your life. But that itself is an artifact of the instrumentalist approach to education I mentioned in the post. Many 18 yr.olds don’t know enough about how the world works or have enough self-knowledge to have clearly defined goals. And most people without clearly defined goals are unmotivated.

I think the flexibility of our system (which is unfortunately on the way out) is a feature not a bug.

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