Going the Wrong Way on Public Education?

Going the Wrong Way? What the Public Says about Education Reform

Labor Day brings the end of summer, the opening of schools and a swarm of education polls. The number of these tallies has increased as groups from the left and right launch efforts that – not too surprisingly – tend to produce results favoring their perspective. The granddaddy, and most universally respected, of these is the Gallup poll sponsored by Phi Delta Kappa, which just released its 45th annual report.

A couple of findings jump out; Most people have not heard of many of the nation’s biggest reform efforts and when they have, they are increasingly dissatisfied with the top-down, test-driven market-model orientation of these initiatives.

In particular, 62% of citizens have never heard of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Proponents of this initiative strongly proclaim it is not a “national curriculum” (which would be specifically prohibited by federal law). Nevertheless, it is a list of what should be taught in each grade level to every student. Based on these standards, national standardized tests are being written with heavy corporate and federal backing. The federal government has said the standards are “voluntary” yet they have required states to adopt these standards in order to get federal grants and dispensations. Of the people who have heard of the CCSS, only 4 in 10 think it will make the nation more competitive while 56% say it will have no effect or be downright harmful.

Perhaps the reason citizens have not heard of these standards is because they were developed outside of normal governmental oversight. Specifically, the ACHIEVE corporation, a private organization, developed the standards with the backing of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. In a closed process with nominal review by practicing educators, state legislatures and state boards of education; these standards were adopted by 45 states. Right wing groups have protested that the standards are illegal back-door incursions into state authority and responsibilities. Left wing groups have objected claiming the standards do not represent the skills needed for the twenty-first century. Specifically, they claim the standards are mechanistic, mind-numbing expansions of rote, drill-and-kill education.

The common standards serve as the foundation for the national standardized tests. According to both House and Senate drafts of the No Child Left Behind reauthorization legislation, mandated standardized tests will continue in grades 3-8 and in high school. The Gallup poll shows that only 22% of the public thinks this is an effective way to improve education. In fact, in just one year, public sentiment dramatically swung against (58%) using standardized test scores in teacher evaluation. Furthermore, excessive testing and regulations leaped on to the public’s list of the nation’s major education problems for the first time. Researchers, from all perspectives, generally agree with the public. Twenty years of test based reform has not resulted in closing the achievement gap.

Since 1983, the driving mantra of the national reform movement has been the “failure” of the nation’s schools. This drumbeat has resulted in a generalized negative attitude toward schools. Yet this impression is not reflected in how Americans rate the schools their children attend. A majority of parents grade their local school as either A or B, -- and by the highest percentage ever recorded. There is an obvious difference between what parents see with their own eyes and the message propagated in the national reform narrative.

Instead, the public sees the greatest problem is the lack of financial support – the number one concern for the last 45 years. This view is supported by the fact that the United States is the only developed nation where educational spending on needy children is lower than for other children. The United States also has the highest income inequality of advanced nations. It should therefore not be surprising that the nation’s school funding is, by and large, inequitable and inadequate.

Polls are only a snapshot. Results vary over time and by how a question is asked. Nevertheless, the growing rift between the public’s desires and the strategies pushed by federal and state policymakers should give us pause for reflection.

At the heart of the issue is a fundamental philosophical disagreement about the purpose of public education. The policymakers have adopted an internationally competitive, top-down, one-size-fits-all, test-based approach. The citizenry clearly aspires to broader and grander purposes.

William J. Mathis is the Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center, a member of the Vermont state board of education and a former school superintendent. The views expressed are his own.