The False Premise of America’s Education Reform

Although it is one of the strongest countries in the world, America has an education system that consistently underperforms compared with other developed countries. Standardized tests, which gauge basic skills such as math and reading, are a strong measure of national academic achievement. American students test far below those of countries like Singapore, China, Finland, and Japan that are known for scoring particularly well. Aware of their students’ underperformance in comparison with students in those countries, Americans mistakenly implement education reform initiatives that are expected to drive up test scores. Our frenzied focus on improving test scores results in a sort of tunnel vision that impairs education officials. They are so intent on improving a single indicator of educational quality that other, less obvious yet more important factors − teaching quality and the level of school resources, among others − are left out. Education reform efforts in America are inefficient. In attempting to improve standardized test performance, they tend to avoid  key issues that actually exacerbate larger problems.

The majority of education reform initiatives overlook the outsized impact that a child’s neighborhood or community, as measured by zip code, has in determining the trajectory of his or her life. Unsurprisingly, some studies have shown that public schools in areas of lower socioeconomic status fare much worse than those in affluent communities. Lower-income students, especially in the inner cities, face greater barriers to academic success. Such students often must learn in dilapidated schools that lack adequate resources, and face the added daily hardship of trying to safely walk or ride to their schools. Reform initiatives like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTT) tried to improve education by focusing on rapid achievement. The problem with their premises, however, is that you cannot hope to begin improving school curricula or teaching until you have solid facilities for children to learn in. Education reform should not overlook less measurable factors that contribute to positive experiences, including better learning, in the classroom.

Developing motivated, high-performing students requires effective teaching. Rather than imposing more curricular changes on teachers, reform initiatives should instead provide them with more opportunities to learn how to devise effective lesson plans and how to interact better with students. Professional development of this kind is one way to strengthen educators’ knowledge of teaching, thus resulting in improved classroom atmospheres.

More attention to professional development would greatly benefit teacher-student interactions, since teachers would have a better understanding of how to engage students in the classroom. Most American education reform is oblivious to the important, often small factors that contribute to the lofty goal of improvement in standardized test scores. A revitalized reform effort would focus less on achievement as measured by scores, and more on improving both student motivation and preparation and teacher quality.

America still has a long way to go in terms of improving our education system. Achievement on tests will always be an important indicator of its general achievement, because it measures our students’ performance relative to those of other countries. However, it is vital to understand that a lot of factors go into producing better test results. More reforms should be based on an understanding of the various factors that contribute to better achievement on tests and elsewhere in education, and on a knowledge of how to improve those factors.