Confirming what many public education advocates have been saying for years, a new report from a bipartisan panel of state lawmakers declares that the United States has little to show for more than a decade of reform efforts inspired by the controversial No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
The report released Tuesday from the National Conference of State Legislatures, No Time to Lose: How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State (pdf), charges that "[s]tates have found little success" in developing an effective education system. Indeed, the executive summary reads, "Recent reforms have underperformed because of silver bullet strategies and piecemeal approaches."
Touching on key aspects of NCLB such as high-stakes testing, the report explains:
In an effort to boost achievement for all students, policymakers have tried a number of approaches and passed a number of state and federal laws. These have included increasing funding, reducing class size, enhancing school choice, improving school technology and teacher quality, more testing and tougher test-based accountability. While some policies have had marginal success in some states or districts, success has not been as widespread as policymakers had hoped.
In turn, the summary states, "most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world in a number of international comparisons and on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress, leaving the United States overwhelmingly underprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy."
The 22 state legislators behind the report—half Democrats, half Republicans—suggest that by studying "high-performing systems" in other countries, the U.S. could regain its footing.
The "silver bullet" approach employed by U.S. states "is not what the study group found in high-performing countries," the report points out. "They do not look to single policy shifts to improve student outcomes. Instead, they have created a coherent system of education within which all policies and practices are designed to lead to high performance."
As the Washington Post reports:
The group examined 10 nations that fare well on international comparisons, including China, Canada, Singapore, Estonia, Japan, Poland, and Korea, and discovered common elements: strong early childhood education, especially for disadvantaged children; more selective teacher preparation programs; better pay and professional working conditions for teachers; and time to help build curriculum linked to high standards.
It also says that high-performing countries tend not to administer standardized tests annually, as the United States does, but instead at key transition points in a student's career. The assessments emphasize essays over multiple-choice in an effort to gauge students' complex thinking skills, according to the report. And the tests cost more than states are used to paying for standardized tests, but "these countries prioritize this investment as a small fraction of the total cost of their education system, knowing that cheaper, less effective, less rigorous assessments will not lead to world-class teaching or high student achievement."
The Guardian zooms in on another significant finding:
The report focuses, at one point, on the American system of educational funding: in many states, driven by property taxes in individual districts, the system of school funding all but ensures that the children of the wealthy have more resources devoted to their educational achievements, while lower-income students who could significantly benefit from more spending end up in schools asked to do more—subsidized school lunches, remedial education, counseling—with less.
And yet, in other countries where students outpace Americans, the opposite is true. "Providing additional resources to schools serving disadvantaged, struggling students is a priority," the report says. "These countries demonstrate that, with added support, struggling students can meet high expectations."
"Inversely, American students from the wealthiest communities are most likely to get the best teachers and the finest facilities because of the way we structure our finance systems."
Fortunately, the era of NCLB is over, as the law has been replaced by the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
ESSA "ends the NCLB requirement that states look almost exclusively at test scores to determine whether and how to reward or sanction schools, and also ends the Race To The Top requirement that states use tests that are linked to the Common Core State Standards in order to evaluate and reward or punish not only students and schools, but also teachers," author and University of San Francisco School of Education dean Kevin Kumashiro wrote in December.
However, he said at the time, "the bad news is that this new law still presumes that testing is the magic bullet."
With the National Conference of State Legislatures report warning against such bullets—whether silver or magic—Kumashiro's conclusion seems prescient: "The silver lining is that this law is scheduled for reauthorization in four years, not the typical seven," he wrote. "Let's use that time to craft a framework that will truly support every student's success and a public school system that embodies the promises of our nation."