We’ve all heard it. From politicians and parents to radio pundits and news reporters, the consensus is clear: The American educational system is in dire straits. I am imagining an upper-middle class backyard peopled with polo-clad men and fragrant women wearing too much makeup. The soft light of a late September sunset is accented by flickering candles in mason jars. Soft, unoffensive music fills the gaps in conversations that every now and then land on the issue of education. Often, the topic passes quickly as someone, half grinning and shrugging, assumes the ubiquitous “Whatta ya gonna do?” stance, then moves on to discuss the more pressing issue of UGA’s pass rushing ability. Or, and this has happened to me, someone (who means well) makes the overly simplistic suggestion of firing teachers who “don’t get the job done.” The rationale is this: If I fail at my job, I run the risk of being fired, so why not teachers? As if educating young Americans were tantamount to selling insurance or crunching numbers for Coca-Cola.
The point is that efforts to find solutions to the challenges we face with this country’s educational system far too often fall into those categories. One group throws its hands up into the air while the other focuses on too narrow an issue. Of course, there are some bad teachers out there who probably deserve to be fired, and I understand feeling exasperated at the scope of the problem, but if we are serious about improving American education, then we have to admit to ourselves that it will not be a quick fix. Diane Ravitch addresses this idea very early in The Death and Life of the Great American School System when she reflects on her experiences studying the “rise and fall of grand ideas that were promoted as the sure cure for . . . schools and students” (3). It’s natural to want to fix a problem quickly, but Ravitch argues that the most recent approach of high-stakes testing, accountability, and choice fail to address the real problem and actually end up harming education.
To understand the current climate of standardized testing and No Child Left Behind, it is necessary to consider the 1983 education report, A Nation at Risk. “The report was an immediate sensation,” writes Ravitch. “Its conclusions were alarming, and its language was blunt to the point of being incendiary” (23). The commission did not sugarcoat the problems the nation faced, nor did it offer magic bullet solutions. Instead, it recommended a sweeping overhaul of education that included “stronger high school graduation requirements; higher standards for academic performance and conduct; more time devoted to instruction and homework; and higher standards for entry into the teaching profession and better salaries for teachers” (25). Those notions stand in stark contrast to the easily quantified basic skills tests mandated by NCLB. Rather than solely testing math and reading skills, A Nation at Risk sought to address the fundamental elements of instruction and curriculum.
What happened? Why didn’t the reform take hold? The short answer is politics. The revised history curriculum was heavily criticized for offering too liberal a representation of historical events and caused much vitriolic debate over what American children are taught. Any content-based standards were likely to meet similar pushback from one party or the other, so “states settled for ‘standards’ that were bland and soporific to avoid battles over what students should learn” (30).
The resulting educational policy eschewed content in favor of testing to avoid controversy and political bickering. It all sounds pretty good. The idea of testing students to see where they stand and holding teachers and administrators accountable appeals to a lot of people. There’s not much on the surface with which to disagree. Hence the appeal for politicians. The only problem is that such an approach almost entirely ignores the place where real education happens: The classroom. In their article “Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment,” Paul Black and Dylan William address this problem by reminding us that “Learning is driven by what teachers and pupils do in classrooms” (Black and William, 2009). They argue that instead of focusing on various inputs and outputs like benchmarks and test scores, more effort should be made to help teachers and students with classroom issues like innovative instruction and formative assessment. That focus on the classroom is reminiscent of the suggestions put forth in A Nation at Risk, and seems to be a more likely path toward healing the education system than the one we’re currently on.