Is school reform making America less competitive?

Many school reformers say that their efforts are aimed at helping to improve schools so Americans can be competitive in the 21st Century economy. Here’s an argument saying that school reform is doing exactly the opposite, from David Bernstein, a nonprofit executive who lives in Gaithersburg, Md., and has two sons, ages 7 and 15.

By David Bernstein

The standard line of the current education reform movement goes as follows: We have broken schools that are producing underachieving students, causing U.S. students to lose ground to young people in other industrialized nations, thereby rendering America less competitive.

In reality, we have more than one problem in education, and, in trying to repair one, we are exacerbating another. In so doing, we are unwittingly making the United States less, not more, competitive.

The first problem is failing schools in the inner city and other economically disadvantaged areas. In the late 1990s, I participated in a visiting delegation to a badly broken Washington, D.C. public school. There were kids lining the hallways playing cards. One person on the delegation asked why the kids were not in class. “We have three choices,” the principal informed us. “We can force these kids to go to class, where they will be disruptive; we can expel them from school, and they will cause problems on the street; or we can let them play cards in the hallway. Which one would you opt for?”

Enter Michelle Rhee, who in 2007 became the firebrand chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. Faced with system-wide dysfunction, including buses that did not show up to pick up students, school buildings in disrepair, weak teachers and principals, arcane union contracts, and an inefficient bureaucracy, she insisted on new accountability measures, including standardized tests that link student scores to school and teacher performance. Though there is no evidence that this approach actually helps schools, Rhee’s approach gained currency among business leaders and the political class, becoming the dominant form of education reform.

Now that same mindset is being applied to school districts that aren’t failing, including those to the District’s north and south. Montgomery County public schools in Maryland, for example, boast some of the highest test scores in the country and stand should-to-shoulder with the best test-taking countries in the world. It is hard to find any kids playing cards in the hallways during instructional time.

And the results of obsessing on standardized tests are hurting kids in suburban districts, just like it is in urban schools. Why? Because they fall short in imparting 21st century skills, most especially critical thinking skills.

In response to a piece I wrote several weeks ago arguing that history teachers should stop forcing kids to memorize  and hold more interactive discussion and projects,  one history teacher commented: “I would love to do more projects and allow students to investigate ideas on their own. Unfortunately I have a district mandated curriculum and students take a test at the end of the year on that information. If I miss too many facts or slow down too much to allow them to do these projects then they may fail the test. I am judged on how well they do on this one test not on how well they think.”

Such statements provide a clear picture of the price we pay in competitiveness for over-relying on standardized tests in functional schools.

Tony Wagner, author and co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says business leaders want graduates with thinking, communication and innovation abilities far more than they want graduates with specific knowledge and technical skills. These business have failed to realize that the school accountability measures that they favor actually make it more difficult for students to develop the qualities they seek in their employees.

Another problem with over-reliance on standardized tests in functional schools is that it tends to hurt kids with learning differences. A standardized test given in a dysfunctional school showing that 60 percent of third graders don’t read well confirms trouble in the school or the surrounding community, or both. The test results tell us that many of these children live under severe duress and/or have received an inadequate education.

A standardized test given in a functional school that shows that 10 percent of third graders are not reading well suggests that not everyone learns in the same way at the same pace. Drawing on research that lumps together kids from functional and dysfunctional environments, functional schools mistakenly conclude that their slow readers are “at risk” because so many of the slow readers from dysfunctional schools end up doing poorly later in life. Their assessment of their own kids is skewed by mixing up two very different challenges. Instead of allowing the kids with learning differences to develop at their own pace, using strategies calibrated to their distinct learning styles, the functional schools act with reckless urgency to raise the kids’ scores, turning them off to learning.

High-stakes standardized tests are pushing functional schools in the wrong direction. These schools need to change by catering to diverse learning styles, scrapping the lectures and emphasizing interactive projects, building critical thinking skills, and allowing kids, over time, to specialize in subjects that most interest them. Judging these schools and their teachers on how they do on standardized tests only locks them into ineffective and outmoded educational practices.

Ultimately, all schools should provide all children with the rich and diverse learning environments. Rhee’s approach to education reform makes no more sense in functional schools than it does in dysfunctional ones.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | February 5, 2013