American public education has never been subject to as much upheaval and chaos as it is today. Schools need stability, not constant disruption. Yet for the past dozen years, ill-advised federal policies have rained down on students, teachers, principals, and schools.
George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama’s Race to the Top are a double whammy. Together, they have severely undermined state and local control of education, even though the federal government puts up only 10% of the cost of public education. The tail is not only wagging the dog, it is controlling its every movement.
NCLB was passed by Congress in 2001 and signed into law in 2002. At the time, George W. Bush persuaded Congress that there was a simple formula to raise test scores and close the achievement gap between different racial groups: Test every child every year, publish the scores, and then reward the successful schools and humiliate those that could not raise their scores. Bush claimed that there had been a “Texas miracle,” but no such miracle ever happened. Nonetheless, NCLB mandated a strict regime of measurements, tied to sanctions for schools that could not produce higher scores. The law required schools to test every child in grades 3-8 every year; by 2014, said the law, every child would be, must be “proficient.” It was left to the states to define what “proficient” was.
NCLB introduced an era in which teachers were encouraged to teach to the test. In many schools, the curriculum was narrowed because the only subjects that mattered were reading and mathematics. What was not tested — the arts, history, civics, science, physical education — didn’t count. Some states, like New York, gamed the system by dropping the passing mark each year, giving the impression that its students were making phenomenal progress. Some districts, like Atlanta and the District of Columbia, were caught up in cheating scandals. On the federal tests called the National Assessment of Education Progress, test scores rose, but not as much as they had before the adoption of NCLB.
Then along came the Obama administration, with its signature program called Race to the Top. Secretary Arne Duncan was the beneficiary of the economic crisis of 2008 because Congress gave the U.S. Department of Education $5 billion to promote “reform.” Duncan held a competition, and cash-strapped states had to agree to certain conditions if they wanted to be eligible for a share of those billions. They had to agree to evaluate teachers to a significant degree by the rise or fall of their students’ test score; they had to agree to increase the number of privately managed charter schools; they had to agree to adopt “college and career ready standards,” which were understood to be the not-quite-finished Common Core standards; and they had to agree to “turnaround” low-performing schools by firing the principal and part or all of the school staff.
The upshot of these two programs, which both rely heavily on standardized testing, is the massive demoralization of educators; an exodus of experienced educators, who are replaced in many districts by young, inexperienced, low-wage teachers; the closure of scores or hundreds of public schools; the opening of thousands of privately managed charters; the growth of for-profit charter schools and online charter schools; a widespread attack on teachers’ due process rights and collective bargaining rights; the near-collapse of public education in urban districts like Detroit and Philadelphia, as public schools are replaced by privately managed charter schools; a burgeoning educational-industrial complex of testing corporations and technology companies that view public education as an emerging market.
In my view, the current era has been disastrous for American public education. No high-performing nation is wreaking damage on its public school system as we are. Instead, the best school systems recruit talented teachers and support them; invest in early childhood education; and attend to the health and well-being of children and their families.
We can have better schools, but we will never get there by our present misguided federal mandates.
Diane Ravitch is a historian of education at New York University who has written numerous books, including the latest bestseller Reign of Error.