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by Yong Zhao
Table of Contents
I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.
The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future life.
January 7, 2008, was an unusually nice day for Chicago. On this day, President George W. Bush brought a present to Chicago's Horace Greeley Elementary School. He came to announce that the school had been named a federal Blue Ribbon School, 1 of 12 in Illinois and 239 nationwide. With Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings by his side, Bush emphasized that this Blue Ribbon honor was not the same as those that might have been given at an earlier time, during what he termed a "kind of a feel-good era." Instead, he said, "it's a Blue Ribbon School because it's excelling. It's meeting standards" (Bush, 2008). And the evidence was Greeley's improved performance on tests: a gain of more than 36 percentage points since 2002 on the Illinois State Achievement Tests, to 83.3 percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards. Math scores had increased even more dramatically—up almost 52 percentage points to 90.2 in 2007 from 38.3 percent in 2002. Bush called Greeley "a center of excellence" and praised the school principal as a person who understood that "we have got to set high standards for our children and work with the teachers to achieve those standards" (Bush, 2008).
On the eve of the sixth anniversary of the day he signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Bush used the occasion to call for the reauthorization of the law. Greeley was selected as the site for a reason: it exemplified the kind of results NCLB intended—improved scores on standardized tests for minority students. It proved, at least in his mind, that NCLB was working well. With a significant Hispanic population and new immigrants among its students, Greeley "is a school that is exceeding expectations because of high standards and using the accountability system as a tool to make sure that no child is left behind" (Bush, 2008).
The Greeley event highlighted the defining characteristics of education reform efforts in the United States during the early years of the 21st century: (1) excellence equals good test scores in math and reading, and (2) standards- and test-based accountability is the tool to achieve such excellence.
No Child Left Behind has undoubtedly been the most significant component of recent education reform efforts in the United States. Although it intends to ensure that every child receives a good education so no child is left behind, its definition of good education is good scores on standardized tests in reading and math. The law requires that all children be given state assessments in reading and math in grades 3 through 8. If a child fails the test, she is judged not to have received a good education from the school. If the school does not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) on student test scores, the school is considered not providing a good education to its students and is labeled "in need of improvement." The school then faces serious sanctions—from allowing its students to move to other schools to being restructured. Schools that produce good scores are considered good education providers. Those that see significant increases in test scores, such as Greeley, are rewarded and honored.
Although the current version of NCLB does not focus on high schools, it requires reading and math to be tested at least once from grades 10 to 12, and testing in science was proposed by the Bush administration. In addition, 22 states have enacted burgeoning high school reforms requiring students to pass a state exit exam to receive their high school diploma. In 2006, 65 percent of the nation's high school students and 76 percent of its minority high school students were enrolled in school in these 22 states.
Math, reading, and perhaps science have become the most valued content of education. Students who perform poorly on a state math or reading test are considered at risk, no matter how well they do in other areas. Schools, too, are judged by their students' performance on math and reading tests, regardless of what other educational opportunities they provide. As Bush said during his visit to Greeley, his philosophy started with a "refusal to accept school systems that do not teach every child how to read and write and add and subtract" (Bush, 2008).
The virtually exclusive emphasis on math, reading, and science is also evidenced by the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) Bush proposed in his 2006 State of the Union address:
[W]e need to encourage children to take more math and science, and to make sure those courses are rigorous enough to compete with other nations. We've made a good start in the early grades with the No Child Left Behind Act, which is raising standards and lifting test scores across our country. Tonight I propose to train 70,000 high school teachers to lead advanced-placement courses in math and science, bring 30,000 math and science professionals to teach in classrooms, and give early help to students who struggle with math, so they have a better chance at good, high-wage jobs. If we ensure that America's children succeed in life, they will ensure that America succeeds in the world.
The high school reforms in many states show the same tendency. Many states have increased the number of required courses in math, English, and science. And in most states, the high school exit exams are primarily in those three subjects.
The almost exclusive emphasis on math, reading, and science is also clearly evidenced by funding appropriations. For example, NCLB's Reading First program has received more than $5 billion since 2002. No other subjects have received the same attention. A U.S. Department of Education initiative titled Strengthening Education: Meeting the Challenge of a Changing World was released in February 2006, following Bush's State of the Union address. The document lists Bush's education agenda for 2006. It states, "The American Competitiveness Initiative [ACI] commits $5.9 billion in FY 2007, and more than $136 billion over 10 years, to increase investments in research and development, and strengthen education and workforce training" (U.S. Department of Education, 2006). Programs on Bush's 2006 education agenda fall into four categories:
Foreign language education is the only other subject mentioned besides reading, math, and science, but it is the last item, and no specific dollar amount or actions are specified. And the mere $114 million for the National Language Security Initiative actually requested by Bush for FY 2007 was to be shared across the departments of Education, State, and Defense, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. As a result, the Department of Education requested $57 million, almost a rounding error compared with the amount devoted to Reading First.
Accountability is an exercise in hope. When we raise academic standards, children raise their academic sights. When children are regularly tested, teachers know where and how to improve. When scores are known to parents, parents are empowered to push for change. When accountability for our schools is real, the results for our children are real.
—George W. Bush
(U.S. Department of Education, 2002)
This quote in a PowerPoint presentation used by the U.S. Department of Education to explain NCLB best explains the logic of the reform and underscores the central role of accountability, standards, and testing in the reform efforts. No Child Left Behind required that all states develop rigorous curriculum standards in math and reading following its passage, and in science by 2005. Today all 50 states have developed such standards and grade-level expectations. These standards must be reviewed and approved by the U.S. Department of Education.
To ensure implementation of these standards, tests must be developed. Every state has developed standardized tests according to these standards. Some states even prescribed textbooks to go with these standards, requiring publishing companies and authors to include and cover certain topics in depth.
No Child Left Behind has also mandated an extensive accountability system involving the state and the local education agency (LEA). Specific responsibilities are assigned to the various agencies involved in education, and punitive consequences are explicitly spelled out if the agency fails to fulfill its responsibilities. States and schools have developed elaborate systems to collect, analyze, and report data required by NCLB to show Adequate Yearly Progress. To further hold schools accountable, data on student performance must be published in local papers, and a school report card, with information about school performance as judged by NCLB requirements, must be provided to parents.
The massive reform efforts in the United States have been intended to close two types of so-called achievement gaps in order to deliver a better future for America and all Americans. The first is the gap inside the United States and among the different subgroups of the population; the second is the gap between the United States and other countries. In the NCLB proposal released by President Bush on July 3, 2001, the Executive Summary begins with mention of these two gaps:
As America enters the 21st Century full of hope and promise, too many of our neediest students are being left behind.
Today, nearly 70 percent of inner city fourth graders are unable to read at a basic level on national reading tests. Our high school seniors trail students in Cyprus and South Africa on international math tests. (Bush, 2001, p. 1)
The phrase "achievement gap" is often used to refer to the performance gap between minority students, particularly African American and Hispanic students, and their white peers, and similar disparities between students from low-income and well-off families in a number of areas: standardized test scores, grades, dropout rates, and college completion rates. For example, results of the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that 39 percent of white students scored at the proficient level or higher in 4th grade reading, but only 12 percent of black students and 14 percent of Hispanic students did so (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003b). The gap in math was even larger, with 42 percent of white 4th graders scoring at the proficient level or above and just 10 percent of black students and 15 percent of Hispanic students achieving the same result. Thirty-eight percent of 4th graders who were eligible for free and reduced lunch scored below basic in math, whereas only 12 percent of those who were not eligible scored at the same level (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003c).
Similar gaps exist in the dropout rate and the graduation rate. In 2006, the dropout rate for white, African American, and Hispanic youth was 5.8 percent, 10.7 percent, and 22.1 percent, respectively (National Center for Education Statistics, 2008). A study on high school graduation rates (Swanson, 2008) shows similar disparities: in 2003–04, high school graduation rates were 76.2 percent for whites, 57.8 percent for Hispanics, and 53.4 percent for blacks. The report found that in the nation's 50 largest urban areas, where most low-income and minority students reside,
[o]nly about one-half (52 percent) of students in the principal school systems of the 50 largest cities complete high school with a diploma. That rate is well below the national graduation rate of 70 percent, and even falls short of the average for urban districts across the country (60 percent). Only six of these 50 principal districts reach or exceed the national average. In the most extreme cases (Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, and Indianapolis), fewer than 35 percent of students graduate with a diploma. (Swanson, 2008, p. 8)
Although closing the achievement gap between subgroups of students within the United States has certainly been a strong motivator for the recent reforms, closing the gaps between the United States and other countries has perhaps been an even stronger force because it concerns the well-being and future of the U.S. economy and involves a majority of Americans, including more powerful Americans—the middle class and big businesses. The sense of an economic threat from other countries has long been associated with the sense that the American education system is much inferior to those of its foreign competitors.
The achievement gap between U.S. students and foreign students is often illustrated by citing test scores on international comparative tests such as the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). In all these tests, the United States has not fared well. Results of the 1995 TIMSS show that U.S. students outperformed students in only 2 of 21 countries in math and finished significantly below students in 14 countries; U.S. students were significantly below students in 11 of 21 countries in science and were significantly ahead of students in only 2 countries. On the advanced math test, of the 15 countries participating, the United States was outscored by 11 countries. The PISA results were no better; American 15-year-olds ranked 24th among students in 40 countries that participated in the 2003 study (Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century [National Academies], 2006). In terms of reading and literacy, 4th graders' performance on PIRLS in 2006 gave the United States a midpoint rank—18th out of 40 countries. The disappointing news is that between 2001 and 2006, U.S. students' reading ability as measured by PIRLS did not show any measurable improvement, despite all the efforts of NCLB to improve reading (Baer, Baldi, Ayotte, & Green, 2007).
The gap is also identified in terms of the number of students pursuing degrees in math, science, engineering, and technology. In October 2005, the National Academies released a report titled Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, written by a panel of 20 prominent individuals with diverse backgrounds. This report was the result of a study requested by Congress to assess America's ability to compete and prosper in the 21st century. The panel presented the following information:
To some, these kinds of gaps spell clear danger to the future of the United States. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has been quoted as saying, "When I was growing up, my parents told me, 'Finish your dinner. People in China and India are starving. I tell my daughters, 'Finish your homework. People in India and China are starving for your job'" (Pink, 2005b). The world's best-known writer on globalization, Friedman has often used this vivid and simple image to warn Americans that the Chinese and the Indians may take away their children's jobs.
Some have gone even further, likening the superior academic performance of other nations to the situation surrounding the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, which was once viewed as the symbol of the Soviet Union's superiority in military technology and a potent threat to the security of the United States. In 2007, Robert Compton, a venture capitalist, produced a documentary film to show how Indian and Chinese students are outdoing their American counterparts in education. The film, Two Million Minutes: A Global Examination, compares the lives of six students in China, India, and the United States through their final year of high school. The point of the comparison is clear, at least according to the filmmaker: American students are squandering their precious two million minutes—the estimated time that students spend in high school—playing video games and partying, while their peers in China and India spend more hours studying math and science, with a strong motivation to enter the best colleges because they all aspire to become top scientists and engineers. The filmmaker compares the situation to the context surrounding
Just as the Soviets' launch of a tiny satellite ignited a space race and impelled America to improve its science education, many experts feel the United States has reached its next "Sputnik moment." The goal of this film is to help answer the question: Are we doing enough with the time we have to ensure the best future for all? (Compton, 2008)
Sputnik has been used quite frequently to invoke a sense of urgency among Americans by many who share Thomas Friedman's "they are eating our lunch" belief. A report jointly issued by "fifteen of [the] country's most prominent business organizations" in 2005 uses
Sputnik as the primary rhetorical device to express their "deep concern about the United States' ability to sustain its scientific and technological superiority through this decade and beyond" (Business Roundtable, 2005, p. 1). The report, Tapping America's Potential: The Education for Innovation Initiative, begins as follows:
Almost 50 years ago, the Soviet Union shocked Americans by launching Sputnik, the first Earth orbit satellite. The U.S. response was immediate and dramatic. Less than a year later, President Eisenhower signed into law the National Defense Education Act, a major part of the effort to restore America's scientific pre-eminence.
The signing organizations "feel strongly that the United States must respond to this challenge as energetically as we did to the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik in the 1950s" (Business Roundtable, 2005, p. 2). The U.S. Department of Education expressed similar thoughts in 2006 in a report titled Answering the Challenge of a Changing World: Strengthening Education for the 21st Century:
This global challenge requires bold action and leadership. America has done it before. Following the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of Sputnik, the world's first satellite, Congress passed and President Eisenhower signed into law the National Defense Education Act of 1958. …Today, America faces not a streaking satellite but a rapidly changing global workforce. (p. 4)
The concerns seem to be well justified. The rise of China and India as the world's new economic powers is an undeniable fact. An average of double-digit growth in gross domestic product (GDP) over two decades propelled China ahead of the United Kingdom, making it the fourth-largest economy in the world, after the United States, Japan, and Germany in 2006. And India has become the epicenter of the high-tech boom. Multinational information technology companies have rushed to set up research and development centers in India. India's economy is set for a growth spurt. It clocked an 8.4 percent rate of growth in GDP for the fiscal year 2005–06, surpassing the advance estimate of 8.1 percent and the previous year's growth rate of 7.5 percent. But more unsettling to the United States is the future.
China and India may have found the secret to turning their combined two billion citizens into highly competitive workers: education in science, math, and engineering. Statistically, even a small fraction of them can kick the United States out of the playground. To make matters worse, associated with the rise of China, India, and other developing countries is the sense that education in the United States has become obsolete or broken.
"America's high schools are obsolete," said Bill Gates, then chairman of Microsoft, at a 2005 conference of governors and chief education officers from all 50 states. Not only are American high schools "broken, flawed, and underfunded," according to Gates, but "even when they're working exactly as designed, [they] cannot teach our kids what they need to know today," because "it's the wrong tool for the times" (Gates, 2005). At the same conference, Margaret Spellings, then newly appointed as secretary of education in the Bush administration, reinforced the assessment and reiterated the call for reform of America's high schools.
Others have pronounced the whole education system, not just high schools, to be "broken." For example, the Ed in '08 campaign (now Strong American Schools), supported by two of the wealthiest charitable organizations—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation—has compiled a list of disturbing figures:
The statistics are compelling. Indeed, significant gaps separate minority and majority students, the poor and the rich, and the United States and many developed and developing countries in the world. But are these truly important gaps? That is, will these gaps really decide the future of American children? Are there more important gaps to close? Can the reform efforts truly close the gaps, and if so, at what costs?
We need some criteria to make the judgment. Education is supposed to prepare future citizens—that is, to equip them with the necessary skills, knowledge, attitudes, and perspectives to live a prosperous and happy life as well as to perform responsibilities required of them as citizens of a society. School performance, however it is measured, is considered an early predictor of students' future success and an indicator of the quality of the education they receive. Thus an undisputable criterion would be whether the achievement gaps can predict future success and be used as indicators of the quality of education a particular school provides, which is the underlying assumption of the current reform efforts.
We need to look at the gaps separately, beginning with the gaps in dropout and graduation rates between the minority groups, particularly Hispanics and African Americans, and the white majority. These gaps almost certainly put the minorities at a disadvantage for securing high-income jobs in the future. Plenty of evidence shows the close association between amount of education and future earnings. According to a study by the U.S. Census Bureau, average earnings (in 1999 dollars) were $18,900 for high school dropouts, $25,000 for high school graduates, $45,400 for college graduates, and $99,300 for those with professional degrees such as MD, JD, or DDS (Day & Newburger, 2002). Clearly, if students drop out of school early, their chance of obtaining a high-income position in the future is slim.
The gaps in test scores can have the same damaging effect on minority groups because test scores are closely associated with education experiences and access to college. Most colleges in the United States still use grades and scores on standardized tests such as the SAT and the ACT as primary criteria in the admission process.
However, these gaps in dropout rates, graduation rates, and test scores are the results of a set of complex issues that the recent reform efforts have failed to address. David Berliner, a well-respected education researcher at Arizona State University, wrote in 2006:
I do not believe that NCLB is needed to tell us precisely where those failing schools are located, and who inhabits them. We have had that information for over a half century. For me, NCLB is merely delaying the day when our country acknowledges that a common characteristic is associated with the great majority of schools that are most in need of improvement. It is this common characteristic of our failing schools that I write about, for by ignoring it, we severely limit our thinking about school reform. (p. 950)
That common characteristic is poverty. In this essay, Berliner brings in abundant data to show clearly that poverty significantly affects school performance and is responsible for the gaps between the poor, urban, minority students and their middle-class, suburban, white peers.
Berliner also provides compelling evidence to show the negative effects of impoverished neighborhoods on the achievement of youth living in them, as well as the negative effects of severe medical problems experienced by poor youth. In addition, strong evidence shows that even a small reduction in family poverty significantly improves school behavior and performance of students. The United States has the highest rate of child poverty among developed nations, a condition that has persisted for decades, without clear signs of disappearing in the near future. In fact, Berliner suggests that the situation may have become worse, due to the recent increase in income gaps in the United States.
Additionally, schools in impoverished communities often have fewer resources than their more affluent counterparts. Teacher shortages and lack of parental involvement, extracurricular activities, technology resources, and funds for libraries are persistent problems facing these schools. Thus the so-called achievement gaps are a result of the resource gaps, a problem that cannot be solved by simply holding the schools and teachers more accountable and giving the children more tests.
Another explanation of the gaps lies with the tests themselves. Test bias is a well-acknowledged phenomenon in the education measurement business. Many researchers have shown how IQ tests are biased against minorities because the tests use language and situations that are more familiar to white, middle-class students. However, psychologist Robert Sternberg discovered another type of bias that is perhaps more important in explaining the achievement gaps.
Sternberg proposed that success requires a broad range of abilities, but schools often focus on only one and ignore others. Conventional tests do the same. Following his "triarchic theory," Sternberg and his colleagues at Yale developed the Sternberg Triarchic Abilities Test. The test measures not only conventional abilities—memory and analytical abilities—but also two other types deemed important by Sternberg: creative abilities and practical abilities.
The test was used to select participants for a summer camp program at Yale and was given to high school students nationwide. The participants were then put into five groups: high analytical, high creative, high practical, high in all three abilities, low in all three abilities. The results were surprising:
The high-analytical group looked pretty much like a standard high-ability group: mostly white, middle-class and attending strong schools. But the high-creative and high-practical groups were much more diverse in terms of ethnic, socioeconomic and educational background. In other words, we found we had selected more minority students not through any program of affirmative action but through a program of recognizing and valuing abilities that schools typically neglect, both in their instruction and in their assessments. (Sternberg, 1998)
Similar results were replicated in other studies. These results suggest that gaps between certain minority groups and their white peers are outcomes of the tests, which neglect to assess other abilities that are as important but not as valued. Furthermore, Sternberg and his colleagues also found that when instruction matches the ability, students learn better. In this sense, conventional instruction provided in schools can be said to alienate minority students, further widening the gaps.
Another psychologist, A. Wade Boykin of Howard University, suggests that there is a fundamental conflict between certain aspects of African American culture and the implicit culture of most American schools (Neisser et al., 1996). This conflict may result in African American students being judged problematic and incompetent by teachers who hold a different view and in the students feeling they are being imposed upon culturally. Boykin has argued that "the successful education of African American children will require an approach that is less concerned with talent sorting and assessment, more concerned with talent development" (Neisser et al., 1996, p. 95).
In summary, the gaps between minority students and their majority peers are important, but they have not really been addressed by the recent reform efforts. In fact, the reform efforts may have further disadvantaged minority students by forcing them into a narrow set of subjects and testing them in only one type of ability. The results may demonstrate to them how incompetent they are, which can further exacerbate their already devastating lack of self-esteem and aspiration. These gaps should be addressed through policies aimed at reducing poverty, recognition of a broad range of talents and abilities in assessment and college admissions criteria, and reconsideration of the value of different talents and knowledge.
The gaps in performance on international tests between U.S. students and their counterparts in other countries are a completely different story. The connection made between students' performance on these tests and their or their nations' future economic well-being is at best speculative. In fact, an empirical study that examines the relationship between countries' performance on international tests and other indicators of the countries' well-being shows either a negative correlation or no correlation between the two. In this study, Keith Baker, a retired officer of the U.S. Department of Education, looked at the relationship between the results of the First International Mathematics Study (FIMS) and the 11 participating countries' success in terms of national wealth (GDP), rate of growth, individual productivity, quality of life, livability, democracy, and creativity 40 years later. These indicators, according to Baker, should be what really matters to a nation. FIMS was administered in 1964 on 13-year-olds in 11 Western, developed countries. The United States finished second to last. Today, some 40 years later, the students who took the test would be in their 50s and would have been the primary workforce over the last 30 years. If FIMS measured something that matters, that something should have predicted a country's condition to some degree. But Baker found either no correlation or a negative correlation. For those who are especially worried about the United States losing its economic competitive edge because of lower scores of U.S. students, Baker (2007) writes, "In short, the higher a nation's test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance" (p. 102). In conclusion, Baker argues:
In the face of such evidence, we can do more than reject the widely held hypothesis that high test scores lead to national success in the future. We can also hypothesize that high test scores are damaging to nations. That the U.S. comes out on top in national success in 74% of the comparisons with higher-scoring nations is statistically significant (p <.0001, binomial test). (p. 103)
Baker is not the only one who has pointed out the lack of connection between test scores and nations' successes. I discuss other similar efforts later in the book.
Baker's conclusion goes against the recent reform and popular rhetoric that says American education is in crisis, and unless quickly and forcefully resolved, the crisis will lead to the decline of the United States as a nation and Americans as individuals. If test scores are not such reliable indicators of the quality of education or good predictors of a nation's or an individual's success, how did the United States come to accept the general notion that its public education system is broken and to support the reform efforts to put more standards and tests in schools? After all, NCLB was a bipartisan effort and overwhelmingly supported by both parties in Congress. The push for more math, science, and reading as well as more accountability has enjoyed support from the broad business sector and the public. How was the public convinced that American education needs such fixes if the fixes do not really solve the problem?
More important, if low test scores are not a problem, does that mean American education is not in crisis? Does it mean that schools should continue the way they were before NCLB and Americans should hope that they will be just fine? Definitely not. Our world is going through a dramatic transformation brought about by economic globalization and technological advances. It is a fact that the United States is facing stiff competition from countries such as China and India. It is also a fact that the United States has been losing jobs to other countries. American schools are undoubtedly not adequately equipped to prepare future citizens to live successfully in the new world. But the solution is not more math, science, and reading; more testing; and more accountability as prescribed by NCLB. In fact, NCLB could lead America into deeper crisis.
What we need is a paradigm shift in thinking about education, both what we should teach and how we should deliver it. What does the new paradigm look like, and how can schools and educators work to realize it?
I address these questions in the remainder of the book. I start with a historical analysis of how the perception of American education in crisis became so widespread and how recent education reform efforts evolved as a response.
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