A Nation Adrift

Today, attention is on the Congress as it addresses changes to the No Child Left Behind Act. That action is overdue since the law expired eight years ago. But, it must be understood that congressional amendments are merely removing unpopular requirements, not creating a new agenda to improve the nation's schools. After a renewed law is enacted, the remnant will be some federal funds to the states for school improvement but no clear national vision on how to bring about better schools.

Thirty years ago, A Nation at Risk, a report calling for urgent action to improve public education, was released by President Ronald Reagan. This report included a recommendation that the federal government play a role in reform, especially with furthering equity.

In response to A Nation at Risk, Presidents from both political parties proposed reforms. President George H.W. Bush raised the idea of creating national academic standards, ranging from English language arts to history. He was not successful; but President Bill Clinton, his successor, secured funding for the states to develop their own standards.

The No Child Left Behind Act, President George W. Bush's contribution, required massive student testing as well as the imposition of penalties on schools for not sufficiently raising test scores. Furthermore, Presidents Clinton and the second Bush funded hundreds of charter schools. The same President Bush established a program in Washington, D.C., that provides tuition vouchers for students to attend private, including religious, schools.

President Obama's Race to the Top grants helped a dozen states to undertake broad improvement of their schools. Other Obama initiatives encouraged the use of student test scores to evaluate the performance of teachers.

These presidential reforms have a mixed record of success. Establishing state academic standards helped to focus instruction, instead of being whatever a teacher wanted or whatever a textbook offered. Moreover, federal action encouraging state standards led to separate independent development of Common Core Standards for English and mathematics and the Next Generation Standards for science. Those standards will raise the rigor of instruction.

A different picture is presented by federal encouragement of charter schools and of providing tuition vouchers for private schools. Neither policy has clearly led to the promised greater student achievement in comparison with regular public schools. Lastly, NCLB's promise of a substantial increase in student academic achievement has not been materialized, and the law's pressure on teachers to raise test scores has backfired into resentment of federal involvement in schooling. With the Obama reforms, it is too early to see detailed data.

This record of mixed results from federally-encouraged reforms should cause a re-evaluation of how the federal government can best support the states and local school districts to improve. Instead, as a nation, we are adrift on how to raise the overall quality of schooling for all students.

How do we get out of this morass? How do we bring about broad, major improvement called for by A Nation at Risk?

Don't get the wrong picture. American public schools are not declining. The evidence from test scores and graduation rates show that the schools are at least holding their own, and even doing somewhat better. For instance, the high school graduation rate is at a record high, and the test scores of Black and Hispanic students have outpaced those of white students on long-term measures of reading and math achievement. These accomplishments are being attained even though the student population has become more difficult to educate with more poor children, children needing to learn English and others with special problems.

The challenge, though, is that other countries are out-pacing the U.S. People across the globe realize that the way to a better life is made easier with more education.

From a front-row seat watching these reforms over decades -- first, as an expert in Congress, and then as founder of the Center on Education Policy, I believe that we have missed the target on school reform. My book, Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools (Harvard Education Press), describes how we have drifted.

Improving teaching and learning in the classroom should have been the focus of attention, not tests and charter schools. "Fast and dirty" solutions, such as pressuring teachers to raise test scores, were a mistake.

Research should have been used to find the best ways to improve the interaction between students and teachers. Four items arise from this research. First, students should be prepared for school before they begin. Second, more teachers need good verbal skills, should be better trained, and then retained through better pay. Third, the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards should be implemented. Finally, every child in America should have adequate and fairly distributed funds provided for his or her education.

None of this agenda would be easy to implement; but states, the national government and local schools districts have begun reforms in these areas. The record shows, though, the need for further action. One-third of 4-year-olds from poor families do not attend preschool, and others are receiving poor quality service. Half of public school teachers graduating from college in 1999 had scores that were in the bottom third of those taking college entrance exams. Some states are abandoning the rigor of the Common Standards. Finally, not enough is spent on education in some states, and in many an inequitable distribution of funds results in low-quality education.

We must have the courage to face up to these challenges. Pokes at teachers to raise student test scores, and setting up some new schools for a few students won't do the deed. Misdirected reforms and isolated improvements are distracting us from the real work.

Thirty years ago, the nation may have been at risk. Today, it is adrift. We can end our timid meanderings in school improvement. We can educate every child to his or her full capacity. That is the American dream, and can be the American reality.