Special Report

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

By Paul Glastris

That may not seem like much, but over time such progress can deliver huge economic gains. In a 2010 study, economists Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford University and Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich found that differences in PISA scores and similar measures of cognitive skills explain a great deal of the difference in growth rates among advanced economies from 1960 to 2000. They further calculated that if the United States could raise its average PISA score 25 points by 2030, it could increase its GDP by $45 trillion over the lifespan of children born in 2010.

Could the new tests and common core standards be the secrets to achieving results like this? Obviously it’s too early to say. But it’s hard to think of another set of government policies already in the pipeline that could more dramatically impact the long-term strength of the U.S. economy. So it’s all the more curious that the new tests and standards have garnered almost no press attention, especially in a presidential election year in which the future of the economy is front and center. That’s a testament not only to the way these policies slipped in under the political radar, but also to the fact that writing about abstruse subjects like norm-referenced testing and PISA scores is hard to do (believe me). But as Washington Monthly contributing editor James Fallows once wrote, the mission of serious journalism is “to make what’s important interesting.” By that definition, the authors of the three pieces in this report—Robert Rothman, Susan Headden, and Bill Tucker—have produced very good journalism indeed.

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.