The Great School Reform Runaround

Since publication of "A Nation At Risk" in 1983, our country has been tied up in knots in frantic efforts to improve the quality of public education. The report used inflammatory language that caught the public's imagination -- saying we have "been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral education disarmament." However, the report's recommendations were calm and sensible -- to strengthen education by lengthening school days, raise standards, reward superior teachers, focus more attention on reading and mathematics, assign more homework -- all general things that most everyone could agree upon.

But a report is just a report, not a mandate for action. It had no discernible impact on the some 14,000 independent school districts around the country. There had in fact been a variety of school reform initiatives during the '60s and '70s, but taken together they did not mitigate the apparent decline of education as reflected in declining Standard Achievement Test (SAT) scores -- a decline that continues.

Predictably, politicians stepped boldly forward to lead us to educational utopia. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation mandated that all students in every school should be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014. There were no exceptions for students from deprived backgrounds, for whom English is a second language, whose families were homeless or students who have little interest in education. Well, 2014 is here and almost gone.

Congress could just as easily have insisted that all pollution be eliminated, all crime be eradicated and all disease be cured. The NCLB mandate could be dismissed as political hyperbole except that it imposes real penalties for schools that do not meet the 2014 goals -- which is every school in the country.

School administrators have responded to their impossible challenge by dumbing down standards, overstating progress and otherwise trying to fake success. NCLB has not only fostered corruption in the system but also undermined the schools that had been doing a good job -- making them teach to the test instead of teaching students to think.

Real progress in education reform depends on learning from successful models and applying effective techniques elsewhere. At the end of the day, effective education reform depends on local support, parental involvement and inspired teachers. Plutarch said the mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be lit. Lighting that fire is an act of magic and good teachers are magicians. That's where our focus should lie.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.