Special Report

May/June 2012 Introduction: The Next Wave of School Reform

By Paul Glastris

The school reform movement—the decades-old bipartisan drive to improve public education with standards and high-stakes tests—might seem, on the surface at least, to be running out of steam. Its crowning achievement, George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which shook up public schools after it was passed in 2001, is now widely seen as flawed and in need of a massive overhaul. Yet efforts to do so have been stalled for years on Capitol Hill because of political disagreements over how to proceed. With reform in limbo, the Obama administration has been reduced to passing out Get Out of Jail Free cards to countless school districts that face penalties for failing to meet the law’s strict targets for improvement. Meanwhile, liberals who were always uncomfortable with using standardized tests to judge student and teacher performance are increasingly in revolt against the whole school reform movement. And conser vatives who never liked the increased federal role in education brought by NCLB are agitating for a return to local control.

Yet looks can be deceiving. The truth is that the standards-and-testing model of school reform is far from dead. In fact, it’s about to kick into a new high gear, in ways that will alter what happens in the nation’s classrooms as fundamentally as NCLB did, and probably more so. Unlike previous waves of school reform, which were debated in Congress and covered in depth by the press, this next one is the product of compacts among states and a quiet injection of federal money—and has therefore garnered almost no national attention. Consequently, few Americans have any idea about the profound changes that are about to hit their children’s schools.

The reforms will unfold in three stages, each of which is explored by an article in this report.

In the first stage, already well under way, almost ever y state is instituting something called the “common core standards,” a demanding new set of shared benchmarks that define what students should know and be able to do at the end of each grade. These benchmarks will replace a jumble of widely varying and often weak state standards that have hitherto guided America’s schools.

The second stage, hard on the heels of the first, is the development of a new set of high-stakes tests based on these new standards. These tests are already being crafted by university and state education department experts across the country, and are scheduled to be rolled out beginning in 2014. They will be fully computerized and far more demanding than anything most American schoolchildren have ever experienced.

The third stage, now being dreamed up in university and corporate labs, will see the rise of new kinds of computer-based learning software, often in the form of games, in which testing happens automatically as students play and work. When this software becomes available for classrooms a decade or more from now, learning and assessment will meld into a single process, and high-stakes testing as we know it will virtually disappear.

All three of these efforts are at -tempts to fix the flaws in the current standards-and-testing regime—the chief flaw being that it creates incentives for schools to aim too low. Existing state standards tend to force teachers to cover too much material shallowly. And existing tests tend to be cheap multiple-choice exams focused on assessing basic skills rather than higher-order thinking.

Of course, an alarming number of students lack those basic skills, especially poor and minority students. And the current standards-and-testing system can claim some credit for putting a significant dent in that problem. Since 1992, when states first started seriously imposing standards and high-stakes tests, African American eighth graders have gained 26 points, and Hispanic eighth graders 22 points, on the math portion of the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test. That means both groups are roughly two and a half grade levels above where they were in 1992, a stunning if seldom-acknowledged improvement. Reading scores haven’t risen as much: 12 points for black eighth graders, 13 for Hispanics. Still, that’s more than a grade level higher than where these groups were twenty years ago—real progress.

The problem is that teaching and testing for basic skills also tends to lead to a dumbing down of the curriculum and to endless drilling for tests, which frustrates teachers, parents, and students alike. It also does little to improve students’ ability to think critically and independently, solve complex problems, apply knowledge to novel situations, work in teams, and communicate effectively—abilities that students must have to succeed in college and, increasingly, the modern-day workplace.

Getting schools to impart these “deeper learning” capacities is precisely what the new wave of school reform aims to achieve. And there is good reason to hope the reforms work, because in many ways the competitiveness of the U.S. economy depends on it. On the Programme for International Student Assess -ment (PISA), a widely used international test that measures higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills, the United States falls in the middle of the pack among thirty-four developed countries in reading and science, and ranks below the average in math.

In a sense, this is nothing new. As far back as 1964, U.S. students scored relatively poorly in math and science compared to those in other nations. But we made up for deficiencies in quality with volume: for decades, America graduated a far larger percentage of its citizens from high school and college than did any other country. That advantage in degree attainment, however, has disappeared as other countries have caught up. The U.S. now ranks twelfth in the world in the percentage of its twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-olds with post-secondary degrees. We’ve fallen behind not because U.S. high school graduates aren’t going on to college—that number has risen consistently—but because the percentage completing college has hardly budged. That’s a sign, in part, that too many U.S. students are leaving high school ill-prepared academically. All of this is happening, notes labor economist Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University, at a time when the globalization of labor markets and the elimination of routine jobs—even reasonably skilled ones—by digital technology means that more and more jobs in the future will require creativity and higher-order-thinking skills.

Is it possible for a large, highly developed nation to make the kinds of changes necessary to boost the critical- thinking skills of its students? Consider the case of Germany. In 2000, Germans learned that their schools, which were long assumed to be first rate, ranked below the average when compared to other countries on the PISA, largely because of the poor quality of schooling offered to less-advantaged citizens. The shock of that news led to a series of reforms, including common national academic standards and new assessments tied to those standards. The result: from 2003 to 2009 Germany added 10 points to its math scores and 6 points to its reading scores on the PISA—on a scale in which 500 is the international average.

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.


  • Caroline Grannan on May 09, 2012 2:20 PM:

    It's seriously unsound journalism to compare U.S. college completion to other nations' without mentioning the financial hardship issue.

    In other nations, college is free or very low-cost. Other developed nations also provide living costs and make up for lost income. In the U.S., the cost of college is the financial burden of a lifetime to many families, possibly exceeded only by housing. Yes, there are loans -- which are widely predicted to be the cause of the next major economic crash.

  • Michael Endicott on May 09, 2012 3:15 PM:

    You have to think that education is in the service of the economy for any of your claims about these hypothetical standardized tests or education re-forms to be true. Education should not service the economy it should service the individual. I am a teacher and I refuse to turn out soldiers for the economic war machine.

  • J. Michael Neal on May 10, 2012 5:22 PM:

    I'm skeptical for a different reason. Contrary to their claims, American businesses don't want more highly qualified employees. They may think they do, but they don't.

    Over my six years of unemployment, a constant refrain has been that someone doesn't want to hire me because I'm overqualified. The peak of that came when I applied for a job at an insurance company and the woman in HR told me that I didn't get a second interview because I was taking the actuarial exams and they were afraid that I would leave the position they were hiring for. I've never been able to wrap my head around the concept of an insurance company *not* hiring someone because he was trying to become an actuary.

    When someone tells me I'm overqualified for a position, what they're really saying is, "This company is so lame that when we find out that you're too valuable for the job you'd be doing, we can't think of any other way to use you."

    Companies don't want better workers. They want someone who is minimally qualified for the position who isn't a threat to want to do anything more.

  • Anonymous on May 10, 2012 9:47 PM:

    Countries with best education have standardized national tests.
    but that's not all they do. and the devil is in the details, i guess.

  • Yankee49 on May 22, 2012 1:18 PM:

    What all this "reform" seems to boil down to is arguing over how will the US update its public education system originally designed to train immigrants so that employers will have trained "workers", immigrant or otherwise, for jobs that they don't even know will exist in the US.
    For those children of the 1% or 10%, such "reform" is irrelevant. They can count on parental financing or "legacy" admission to private education from pre-school to post-graduate. And, those billionaries and corporations currently financing politicians and having public policy written by their lobbyists (Fed and State level) have no real interest in public education or much of anything that doesn't reduce their taxes or otherwise promote the common good.
    Why will "education reform" be anything more than a continuing abstraction? Unless of course it benefits private/for profit corporations, like the Washington Post's own education arm.

  • Mavor on May 22, 2012 1:45 PM:

    It is not reform at all. California had a wonderful system that guaranteed education for all from the kindergarten to the 14th grade. At my high school, in 1969, almost no one went directly to a four year college. We all went to a junior college that was completely and totally free. Students could take that time to remediate and/or explore what they wanted to study. It worked very well and gave California a workforce that supported aerospace and silicon valley. Then, Prop. 13 began the defunding of this system. Now, if they even have room, junior colleges are too expensive for the poor. This is not education reform it is education deform. We had a system that worked very well indeed and it have been dismantled to lower the taxes of the wealthy.

  • Tim Shea on May 22, 2012 4:11 PM:

    The global competition for jobs is a fiction story created to cover the outsourcing of the jobs that can be done by people with the equvilent of an US 8th grade education.Textile mills are non existent in the states. Auto manufacturing here as well as sales declined due to the lower wages paid to foreign workers and the lack of fairness in any"Fair Trade Act". The storyline that we imported dangerous wall board, toys and food from China because of a failure of American education is true to the extent that American policy and politics failed to provide true public educationconcerning the true costs of corporate friendly( and only corporate friendly) rules of trade and finance. The only thing we now sell is the rope with which we are hung.

  • Jerome Dancis on June 04, 2012 2:42 PM:

    As U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's said: "... it is hard to teach what you don't know. When we get to 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, we see a lot of students start to lose interest in math and science ... because their teachers don't know math and science".
    This reform will not change this, except that the higher math standards will result in many middle school math teachers becoming even more math phobic.

  • rick on June 04, 2012 6:50 PM:

    These new common core tests are doomed to failure. Here's the red flag: "These tests are already being crafted by university and state educatiobn department experts. . . ." These so-called experts live professional careers that are far removed from the average American student. They will gladly demonstrate their lack of understanding when they roll out their battery of exams in 2014. Testing higher order thinking skill while putting academic fundamentals on the back burner for novice learners is a mistake that will take a generation to repair.

  • Rob Bligh on July 26, 2012 2:05 PM:

    Increasing Failure of Families - For nearly fifty years, on the subject of the primary cause of student failure in K-12 schools, America has been squeamish about the truth, or foolish or governed by a need to appear to be politically correct. Whatever the excuse, tens of millions of innocent children have paid the dreadful price of going to kindergarten unraised and, therefore, unprepared to succeed in school or in life.