The so-called educational reform movement has been ongoing since the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. The reform movement has failed miserably in its own terms. The so-called reformers claim the public schools are in worse condition – “a risk to national security”- than they were when the reforms were instituted. These complaints about public schools are evidence that after 10 years, the reforms have failed. We should be doing something different.
No Child Left Behind instituted the practice of high-stakes testing as a reform with two expressly stated purposes: first, using state academic assessments to promote a “high-quality education” for all, equating high-quality education with academic achievement test scores and second, to reduce the minority-majority achievement gap. The federal government has spent approximately $4.4 billion since 2002 in state support for annual achievement testing in grades three through eight on state developed tests. The states, according to the Brookings Institute, have spent $1.7 billion annually on achievement testing. The $1.7 billion probably included federal dollars spent by the states. (As taxpayers, we don’t care whether state education departments are spending state or federal tax dollars.)
What have we gotten educationally in return? Nothing good. The federal government also spends about $129.6 million a year on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Called the Nation’s Report Card, it is intended as a cross-check on state achievement test results. Participation in NAEP testing is required for states to receive funds under the Elementary and Secondary School Act. A carefully selected national sample takes NAEP tests in fourth and eighth grades in reading/language arts and in math. The data are reported as statistical standard scores comparable from year to year.
The federal Department of Education provides annual NAEP results for the years before and since No Child Left Behind. The curves in both reading and math are essentially flat between 2003 and 2011. The largest percent increase in standard scores was 2.6 percent for fourth-grade math. Eighth-grade math standard scores increased by 2.5 percent. Fourth-grade reading increased by 1.9 percent, and only 1.1 percent for eighth-grade reading. None of these very small changes has educational significance.
The majority-minority achievement test gap did close slightly between 2003 and 2011. Both blacks and Hispanics gained at a slightly faster rate than did whites in both reading and math for both fourth and eighth grades. Nonetheless, the minority students were still considerably behind majority students in both subjects; after nine years, the gap remained at an average of 25 standard score points, a reduction of only 12 percent over the No Child Left Behind years.
The Brookings Institute report estimated an annual expenditure of $1.7 billion for the costs of state contracts with test publishers. Their estimate of dollar costs includes neither highly profitable test preparation materials sold to states by test publishers nor student and teacher test preparation time. If we simply multiply $1.7 billion by nine for the years 2003 to 2011, the cost of the high-stakes testing intervention was $15.3 billion, certainly not a trivial sum. We did not get much “bang for the buck” in either test score increases or in reductions of the majority-minority achievement gap. That money could have been better spent in programs that directly reached the classroom through the classroom teacher.
The accountability thrust in education has been a failure in its own terms. But there are other indications that educational reform has been a bust. Reform after reform has been heaped upon the schools with no feasibility analysis, no market analysis and little preparation. Common core standards, for example, have been introduced into 46 states with no pilot testing, and no analysis of necessary training of teachers, or the availability of curriculum materials nor any evidence their use will actually improve education.
A CEO in the private sector who introduced a major new product so haphazardly would be booted out as incompetent and reckless. Only one in seven new products makes it through the idea stage to production; about 65 percent of new products that make it to the market succeed, a rate from start to finish of less than 10 percent. Bad management methodology is being imposed on the public schools and the educators faulted when the change fails.
Just as most new products don’t succeed even when introduced carefully, many educational reforms have been disasters. New York City has been subject to every variety of reform, but to what end? A prime example is the high school graduation rate for black males in New York City. Black males are the most vulnerable group for educational failure and for subsequent incarceration. Yet according to the 2012 Schott Report, despite all the reforms in New York City, the high school graduation rate for black males was 28 percent, up only 1 percent from its previous rate of 27 percent; only six of 56 large school districts nationwide have worse records. (One of these was Buffalo, with 25 percent black male graduation in the 2010-2011 report. Buffalo seems not to have submitted data for the 2012 report.)
When will we hold educational “reform,” as practiced in New York City and elsewhere in the nation, accountable for its costly and abysmal failures?
Murray Levine, JD, Ph.D., is distinguished service professor (psychology) emeritus at the University at Buffalo. He has published extensively on educational subjects. Adeline Levine, Ph.D., is professor emeritas (sociology) at UB. A former chairwoman of the department, she is the author of “Love Canal: Science, Politics and People,” and books and articles on educational subjects.