Education Encyclopedia - » Education Encyclopedia: Education Reform - OVERVIEW to Correspondence course


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Jacob E. Adams Jr.

Rick Ginsberg


In 1983 American education reform entered a new era. It was in that year that the federal government published a report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education entitled A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Commissioned in August 1981 by President Ronald Reagan's secretary of education, Terrel H. Bell, and chaired by David P. Gardner, then president of the University of Utah, this eighteen-member blue-ribbon panel of educators and elected officials examined the quality of elementary and secondary public education in the United States and found a "rising tide of mediocrity" that threatened the nation's future. In inflammatory tones, the commissioners reported that the United States had engaged in unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament, asserting that if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance the commissioners found, the nation might well have viewed it as an "act of war."

In support of their conclusions, the commissioners presented numerous indicators of risk, including Americans' poor academic performance relative to students overseas, high levels of functional illiteracy among U.S. adults and seventeen-yearolds, and declining achievement-test scores. The commissioners also cited increasing enrollments in college remedial courses, increasing business and military expenditures on remedial education, and a diluted curriculum in the schools. They detailed low expectations for student performance and college admissions, less time devoted to instruction and homework, and poor-quality teaching and teacher preparation. According to the commission's analysis, the nation's schools narrowly emphasized basic reading and computational skills at the expense of other essential talents, such as comprehension, analysis, problem solving, and the ability to draw conclusions. For the first time in U.S. history, the report concluded, the educational skills of one generation would not surpass, nor would they even equal, those of its predecessors. This development was particularly striking as it would occur during a period of increasing business demand for highly trained workers.

The commission called for a new public commitment to excellence and education reform anchored in higher expectations for all students. It encouraged students to work harder and elected officials to encourage and support students' efforts. The rhetoric of reform proclaimed that all children can learn and that public policies should do everything possible to fully develop the talents of America's youth.

Specifically, the commission recommended tougher high school graduation requirements, more rigorous and measurable standards of student performance and conduct, more time devoted to learning, better teaching and teacher preparation, more effective school leadership, and greater fiscal support. The report struck a national nerve, defining the public dialog about school quality and sparking state action in education reform. California acted first, adopting omnibus education reform legislation that increased high school graduation requirements, lengthened the school day and year, raised expectations for homework and student conduct, expanded student testing, and increased education funding. Other states followed California's lead, adopting education reforms of varying magnitude. The excellence era in education reform was launched, ushering in more than two decades of federal, state, and local initiatives to improve America's public schools.

Reform Groundswell

Why was A Nation at Risk such a successful catalyst for U.S. education reform? Arriving against a backdrop of widespread concern regarding the health of the U.S. economy, the report reflected contemporary misgivings that America was losing its "once unchallenged preeminence" in commerce and technology. Confronted by economic recession at home and declining market share abroad, government and business leaders looked to public schools to assign blame and to seek solutions. In fact, one of the fundamental assumptions of education reform in the mid-1980s was that the quality of K–12 education would determine the nation's economic success. While the booming U.S. economy of the 1990s proved this assumption false in the aggregate, the relationship between improved education and an individual worker's success in the new marketplace remained compelling. According to analysts, the business-related skills needed to earn a middle-class income had changed radically.

In the mid-1990s the economists Richard Murnane and Frank Levy described three elements to these new basic skills: (1) basic mathematics, problem-solving, and reading abilities at levels much higher than high school graduates typically attain;(2) the ability to work in groups and to make effective oral and written presentations, skills many schools do not even teach; and (3) the ability to use personal computers to carry out simple tasks such as word processing. To secure these skills, they concluded, schools must help teachers learn to teach new material, devise better tests of student knowledge and understanding, raise expectations, and engage students' attention and energy. Education reform promised an avenue to such changes.

Further reinforcing A Nation at Risk's call for education reform, the mid-1980s saw publication of book-length, unflattering critiques of American high schools written by leading academic researchers. All told, philanthropic foundations, business groups, academic researchers, education organizations, political associations, and government agencies produced more than two dozen influential reports on public education between 1983 and the end of the twentieth century. All of these reports found deficiencies in American schools, and all called for education reforms of one kind or another.

The impetus for reform gained additional energy from growing social and political discontent. Social service agencies reported increasing incidences of poverty, drug abuse, unwanted pregnancy, and violence; while citizens, through property-tax revolts and consideration of privatization proposals, demonstrated a declining confidence in public institutions. Could changes in American education address these social and political ills in the same way that they might better prepare students for productive careers? Advocates thought so, and the call for reform broadened.

Buttressing the imperative for education reform, the nation's top political leaders added their support. In 1989 President George Bush convened an education summit of corporate leaders and the nation's governors. This elite group crafted the firstever national goals for public education. Subsequently, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush similarly sponsored national education summits (in 1996 and 2001, respectively), symbolizing the continued importance of public education reform to the nation.

In the 1990s education reform benefited still further from a broad social demand to improve government efficiency. Operating under the moniker reinventing government, advocates argued that bureaucratic government had become inefficient, or even bankrupt, and they promoted new forms of government organization and activity that emphasized dispersed authority, competition, flexibility, customer service, community empowerment, performance incentives, and oversight based on results. Many excellence-era education reforms substantially reflected this reinventing government agenda.

Finally, national commissions on teaching and education governance issued reports in the 1990s, the former crafting a blueprint for recruiting, preparing, and supporting excellent teaching; the latter defining options for infusing greater adaptability, flexibility, and accountability into public school governance.

This groundswell for public-education reform was not without critics, however. Contesting the evidence of public education's demise, these critics argued that Americans were being misled about school accomplishments, even to the extent of confronting a "manufactured crisis." The ensuing debate contested the interpretation of student test scores and other performance indicators, while the tone of the debate reflected alternative political claims that conservatives wished to discredit public education and that liberals undercut a legitimate need for education reform. While neither side claimed that public education was satisfactory, they scuffled over which problems deserved attention and which solutions held the key to fundamental school improvement.

This debate was not surprising. As historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban have noted, disagreements about progress and regress in American public education are characteristic of the landscape, and political arguments have often been used to mobilize and direct education reform.

Reform Policies

During the excellence era two strands of activity have dominated the nation's education reform efforts. The more visible strand involved federal, state, and local initiatives to improve educational programs and governance. Designed to influence what students know and are able to do, program and governance reforms divide into three overlapping periods, which are distinguished by their predominant reform strategy and relative reliance on governmental, professional, citizen, and market mechanisms of education reform.

Intensification period initiatives (1983–1987) tightened existing education regulations and raised student requirements. Examples include increased high school graduation requirements, a longer school day and year, and skills tests for beginning teachers. Restructuring period initiatives (1986–1995) altered the way education was organized and governed, devolving authority to schools (particularly teachers) and to parents. Examples include school-based management and school choice. So-called whole-school designs emerged during this period as well, representing ambitious attempts to restructure American education. The New American Schools, the Coalition of Essential Schools, Core Knowledge schools, Accelerated Schools, Success for All, and the Edison Project represent these research-based, result-driven comprehensive plans to reorganize entire schools. Restructuring reforms also reached beyond the schoolhouse, linking education and social services in an effort to address poverty, pregnancy, and other nonschool circumstances that inhibit students' learning.

Standards period initiatives (beginning in 1992) established content standards for student knowledge, performance standards regarding levels of student mastery, and opportunity-to-learn standards governing conditions of learning. States reinforced the new standards through equally new performance accountability systems composed variously of public reporting requirements and performance tests, some tied to school rewards, sanctions, or state interventions to assist failing schools.

Standards-based reforms adopted a systemic perspective on education change, pursuing greater coherence across the gamut of learning goals, curriculum changes, professional development, accountability assessment, and governance arrangements. Simultaneously, other governance concerns spawned unrelated experiments with charter schools, contracting, and forms of privatization.

A second strand of education reform activity during the post-1983 period originated in legal challenges to state school-finance systems. Based on equal protection claims, judicially mandated finance changes attempted to ensure the equitable provision of educational resources. In arguing that unequal resources unfairly preclude groups of students from the educational services they need to have even a chance at academic success, equity proponents conceived the problem of poor student performance as an issue of relative, even minimal, educational opportunity.

On the whole, the program-governance and finance reforms developed separately. Program-governance reforms arose as a remedy to the nation's poor showing on international comparisons of economic and educational performance; they sought changes in student achievement, promoted excellence, involved multiple levels of government, mandated changes in educational practice, and promised difficult implementation. In contrast, school finance reforms arose as a remedy to unequal educational resources; they sought a different distribution of dollars, promoted equity, primarily involved state government, and mandated only technical changes in school funding formulas, which were relatively simple to implement.

In the 1990s the two strands began to converge. Fourteen state supreme courts decided school finance cases on the unique basis of education clauses in state constitutions, finding a new obligation that public education must be adequate, not just equitable. Adequacy combines equity concerns regarding resource distribution with attention to what those resources accomplish. Though the future of adequacy as an important impetus to education reform remains uncertain, adequacy does link school finance to the core purposes of public education in ways that equity does not.

Reform Dynamics

While finance, intensification, restructuring, and standards-based reform strategies all sought improvements in student learning, they operated from different conceptions of the problems that hamper school success. Finance reforms attempted to remedy inequitable resource allocations. Intensification policies targeted low expectations. Restructuring addressed outmoded forms of school organization. Systemic initiatives combated fragmented and uncoordinated state education policies, and standards redressed unspecified student learning goals and measures of success.

Within the excellence era, the transition from one period of reform to another resulted from judgments that current initiatives were not improving student achievement, primarily because they were not addressing the right problem. The transitions signaled the continued search for a sound theory of education reform.

Analysts working from different disciplinary perspectives have identified other dynamics that shape the promise of reform. Political scientists, for instance, have highlighted fundamental value conflicts in education reform proposals. Because values conflict, reform goals and resources shift as often as their supporting political coalitions shift, or as issues gain and lose salience in legislative deliberations.

Policy analysts have depicted the incomplete design of many education reform policies. Researchers Paul T. Hill and Mary Beth Celio coined the phrase zones of wishful thinking to describe the situation that occurs when reform initiatives do not cause all of the changes in public education that are necessary to achieve the results they seek, leaving school improvements, in part, to chance. Implementation scholars have noted, at the local level, the lack of motivation or capacity to undertake reform, inspiring Milbrey McLaughlin's conclusion that it is incredibly hard to make something happen, especially across levels of government and institutional settings.

Sociologists have discussed how the organization of schooling shields teaching from education policymaking, protecting classrooms from the turmoil of shifting reform agendas but also fostering a teaching culture of isolated and idiosyncratic practice, rendering uniform changes problematic. This loose coupling of education policy and practice helps explain how constancy and change coexist in public schools. Educators have targeted weak instruction, proposing improvements in teacher preparation, initial licensing, and advanced certification, thus pinning reform hopes on a re-created infrastructure for professional learning and accountability.

While these dynamics influence parts of the education system, political economists have assailed the whole system, arguing that the prevailing bureaucratic organization of public schooling, with its regulatory and compliance mentality and reliance on collective bargaining, precludes serious change. Their remedies would alter education's incentives and governance arrangements.

Psychologists studying adolescent behavior have added a further dimension to the debate, demonstrating how students' home environments, peer culture, and part-time work explain more differences in student achievement than teacher quality or other school factors. From this perspective, education reforms must extend beyond the boundaries of schools.

While demonstrating the complexity of education reform, these analyses also signal how the search for excellence in education has opened the entire educational enterprise to review.

Reform Results

What are the results so far, in the early twenty-first century, of excellence-era education reforms? First, reform produced policy changes at all levels of government. At the national level, elected officials and business leaders articulated national education goals. Three presidents, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, launched and touted education reform initiatives, while national education organizations adopted new professional standards for teacher education and administrator licensure.

At the state level, all states developed tests to measure student performance, and forty-nine states developed academic standards. Twenty-seven states began to hold schools accountable for results, promoting performance-based accountability but also inspiring debates about the scope and quality of standards, the adequacy of tests, and needed supports for change. Many states, California and Kentucky notably, legislated substantial programs of reform. Eighteen state courts overturned school finance systems, opening the door to greater equity in educational opportunity or adequacy in school funding.

Locally, with varying degrees of success, school districts and schools either adapted to these reforms or launched their own improvement initiatives. School spending increased approximately 36 percent in real terms, and education agencies grappled with how best to intervene in persistently low-performing schools. Throughout this period, education reform remained on legislative agendas, reflecting the public commitment to reform envisioned by the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

Second, education reform introduced new structures to the institutional landscape of public education. Notable governance additions included school site councils, charter schools, service contracts, and vouchers. The new National Board for Professional Teaching Standards institutionalized professional teaching certification, while experiments with teacher compensation systems and with labor-management relations challenged teacher pay and work arrangements. At the school level, whole-school designs offered ready-made reform structures, and family resource centers integrated educational and social services.

Third, reform's policies and institutions wrought shifts in authority over education's goals and work. Among key actors, control shifted from educators and education interest groups to state policymakers, business leaders, mayors, and parents–the latter two, respectively, through mayoral takeovers of school districts and the introduction of school councils, charter schools, and school choice. At the organizational level, authority shifted simultaneously from school districts upward to state agencies and downward to schools. The shifts resulted from diminished public confidence in educators and education bureaucracies to accomplish school improvements and from the new focus on performance accountability, which enhanced state-school connections.

Fourth, in contrast to the level of reform activity, academic performance remained essentially flat. A gap persisted between test scores of white and minority students, though some gaps narrowed for some age groups in some subjects. More high school graduates made an immediate transition to college, from 53 percent in 1983 to 63 percent in 1999. Dropout trends were erratic but lower overall. In percentage terms, twice as many students took advanced courses in math, science, English, and foreign languages, though the overall numbers remained low–less than a third in English and language, less than half in math and science. In international comparisons of student performance, fourth and eighth graders in the United States scored above international averages in math and science, while twelfth graders scored below international averages in both subjects. On another dimension, Americans failed to attain even one of the six national education goals by the target year 2000.

Fifth, flat achievement notwithstanding, public support for public schools reached a new high in 2001. For the first time, a majority of Americans (51 percent) graded public schools either A or B, with 68 percent of public school parents grading their child's school A or B. Moreover, when asked to choose between reforming the existing school system and seeking alternatives to it, 72 percent of Americans chose education reform.

Finally, lessons learned from extensive school reform efforts in Kentucky and in Houston, Texas, demonstrated that bold education reform is possible but difficult. Observers credited success in these locations to a common vision of success, high expectations for all students, focus on results, strong leadership and teacher competence grounded in coherent curriculum and professional development, and business involvement. In short, education reform in these locations required incentives for performance, investments in organizational and individual capacity, and greater school autonomy.

Enduring Issue

Americans have long translated their social ambitions into demands for education reform. In the excellence era, these ambitions primarily addressed economic and civic vitality. The compelling argument behind excellence-era education reform was that persistent, low levels of student achievement failed to equip students for success in the emerging economy and polity. That challenge remains. History's lesson is that, of all education reforms, changes in teaching and student achievement come slowly.


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Reports compiled by individuals or commissions suggesting reforms for public education have appeared throughout America's postcolonial history. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, committees and commissions of prominent individuals became popular for suggesting innovations to cure some educational ills. Since the 1983 release of the National Commission on Excellence in Education's landmark report, A Nation at Risk, reform reports have peppered the landscape on a wide array of topics affecting K–12 and higher education. Most of the waves of reform since the 1980s have been spearheaded by a high-profile study of schooling containing a clarion call regarding the need for improvements. Indeed, reform-by-commission has become a mainstay in the arsenal of those hoping to change schools.

Those specifically examining the reform-by-commission process have come to a series of conclusions about these reports: (1) they have been around for a long time; (2) they tend to suggest changes in a very general manner; (3) they rarely attend to the significant issues in the implementation of reforms; and (4) their specific recommendation have had little direct impact on schools. That said, it is also clear that reform reports provide the rhetorical and symbolic context for reforms to be considered, as they denounce perceived problems and attempt to incite a sense of urgency demanding resolution.

Educational reform reports can be separated into three distinct periods. The first period, the period of early reform-report activity, includes the few reports generated in the United States up until the late nineteenth century. The second period, the era of Progressive reforms, roughly covers the late nineteenth century up until the 1980s. The final period, the era of the modern reform report, began in the early 1980s.

Early Reform-Report Activity

A number of reports of Prussian and French educational innovations heightened interest in improving America's schools. For example, the German professor Johann Friederich Herbart published a volume on the psychology of the art of teaching in 1831, while a Frenchman, Victor Cousin, published a report on the Prussian system of preparing teachers that was reprinted in English in 1835. The first U.S. educational reform reports were generally conducted by prominent individuals driven to foster the development of the nation's universal, free, public, and compulsory system of common schools. Leaders such as Henry Barnard of Connecticut, Calvin Stowe of Ohio, Caleb Mills of Indiana, Calvin Whiley of North Carolina, and John Pierce of Michigan advocated reforms for schools. Most significant among these were the reports of Horace Mann, the secretary of the State Board of Massachusetts in the late 1830s and 1840s. Mann's twelve annual reports covered a broad range of topics and decried the poor efficiency of the public schools. His reports analyzed topics including the moral purposes of schooling, the curriculum, libraries, pedagogical methods, the quality and training of teachers, discipline, school facilities, and church-state relations regarding public schools. Mann urged the standardization of the schools.

Toward the end of the early reform period, the analyses of Joseph M. Rice, the editor of Forum magazine, were published. Rice, a pediatrician who had studied pedagogy in Germany, visited hundreds of urban classrooms in thirty-six cities during the 1890s. He found the conditions and methods of instruction deplorable. Rice eventually designed a simple method of testing spelling to make more reliable evaluations and reported his findings in a series of articles appearing in Forum.

As the design and nature of schooling in the United States unfolded during the nineteenth century, reports emerged that depicted the condition of American education and offered various remedies for reform. The pace of reports about schools intensified as the country expanded west and the American population grew. This pattern was evident in the era of Progressive reforms.

Era of Progressive Reforms

From the 1890s until the 1980s a number of key education reports were published. These ranged from blue-ribbon commissions produced by elite educators and business persons to studies of schools prepared by prominent individual researchers. In this period the practice of conducting surveys of individual school districts was popularized. A 1940 textbook on educational history by John Russell and Charles Judd of the University of Chicago reported an astounding 3,022 educational surveys between 1910 and 1935. Supporters of this burgeoning examination of schools stressed the importance of using scientific techniques to inform policy.

Beginning in the 1890s the National Education Association (NEA), the leading professional education organization, produced a number of reports, the first and most notable being the 1893 report of the Committee on Secondary School Studies (chaired by Harvard president Charles Eliot), the Report of the Committee of Ten. The report identified the lack of uniformity in secondary programs and college admission requirements and sought to formulate curriculum and admissions requirements that would bring some harmony to secondary and higher education. Though scholars differ in their interpretation of the impact of this report's findings, the report did force high schools to work towards greater uniformity in curriculum.

In response to the tremendous growth in secondary school enrollment during the early decades of the twentieth century, the NEA established the Committee on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, which produced The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education in 1918. Published by the U.S. Department of Education, the document identified several means of preparing students for their duties as citizens, workers, and family members. The bulk of the report dealt with the goals of education in a democracy, the main objectives of education (seven were identified), and the role of secondary education in achieving these objectives. Key recommendations included compulsory schooling for at least eight hours a week until age eighteen and the creation of junior and senior high schools–with a comprehensive high school being one with a core curriculum, variables depending on vocation, and electives to accommodate special interests. The report reflected much of the thinking on education at the time, though its release during World War I no doubt affected its impact.

Other NEA-sponsored reports were released in the 1930s by the Commission on the Orientation of Secondary Education. Issues of Secondary Education (1936) and Functions of Secondary Education (1937) produced recommendations and key functions for secondary schools, including the idea of universal secondary school; curriculum beyond college preparatory, which was differentiated to meet specific needs; greater articulation between elementary and secondary schools; and, most controversially, that students should be eliminated from school once it was apparent that they would no longer benefit from being there.

Reports produced by the NEA-related Educational Policies Commission (EPC) included The Unique Functions of Education in American Democracy (1937) and The Purposes of Education in American Democracy (1938). In the first document, schooling was characterized as an institution that should be run by professionals with great academic freedom. Schools were to be run in a climate protective of democratic and scientific principles. The Purposes document amplified the key aims laid out in the Cardinal Principles. Some argued, however, that these recommendations were out of step with burgeoning issues related to the control of American youth.

The Progressive Education Association undertook several studies, the most prominent of which was the Eight-Year Study, the findings of which were released in 1942. This landmark evaluation project included twenty-nine secondary schools with Progressive curricula whose students were studied for eight years. Several colleges agreed to accept students from these programs who didn't meet usual entrance requirements. The evaluation matched 1,475 pairs of students from Progressive and conventional high schools across an array of variables in college. Much of the impact of the study was clearly blunted by its release during World War II, and although little remained of the programs in the Progressive schools years after the study, the evaluation design served as the model for studies for decades.

Toward the end of World War II, the EPC released Education for All American Youth (1944). Rereleased in 1952 to account for postwar changes, this report made suggestions for improving secondary education. At that time, more than half of all students never completed high school, yet the growing population and an increased faith in the power of schooling were swelling enrollments. Later in the 1950s, the Carnegie Corporation sponsored James Conant's The American High School Today, which involved visitations to fifty-five schools in eighteen states. Schools were evaluated, and it was determined that academically talented students were not being challenged. Key ingredients of successful schools were found to include strong school board members, superintendents, and principals; twenty-one specific recommendations for curriculum were included.

Probably the most significant report of the 1960s was the federally funded research study Equality of Educational Opportunity, published in 1966. Authored by James Coleman and associates, the report examined data from 600,000 students in 4,000 schools. The educational and socioeconomic backgrounds of students' families were found to be the most important variables explaining achievement, far outweighing the impact of school or teacher variables. These findings inspired several decades of debate, affecting a variety of school-related policies.

In the 1970s the Kettering Foundation created the National Commission on the Reform of Secondary Education, which worked on updating the Conant findings. Its 1973 report, The Reform of Secondary Education, focused primarily on alternatives to the traditional high school curriculum and a general definition for all American high schools.

Most of the reports in this period were driven by the push for scientific inquiry and the expanding role of schooling in American culture. In the early 1980s, highly visible reports underscored perceived problems and offered solutions for change.

Era of the Modern Reform Report

The 1980s became the decade of the reform report starting with the publication of Mortimer Adler's The Paideia Proposal in 1982. With the 1983 release of A Nation at Risk, the most widely acclaimed report of this genre, an unprecedented period of reform report activity began. It stated that a "rising tide of mediocrity" had overcome America's schools, and that if another nation had tried to impose such mediocrity on U.S. schools it would be considered "an act of war." Its many recommendations included strengthening the curriculum, lengthening the school day and the school year, paying teachers based on performance, and increasing homework. These recommendations were debated from statehouse to statehouse across the country. Though the recommendations may not have been followed exactly, the atmosphere for reform generated by the report ushered in a reform period unlike any other in the nation's history.

Other reports soon followed. In 1983 alone, major reports that were released included: Ernest Boyer's High School; the Business-Higher Education Forum's America's Competitive Challenge; the College Entrance Examination Board's Academic Preparation for College; John Goodlad's A Place Called School; the National Science Board Commission on Precollege Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology's Educating Americans for the 21st Century; the Southern Regional Education Board's Meeting the Need for Quality Action in the South; the Task Force on Education for Economic Growth's Action for Excellence; and the Twentieth Century Fund's Making the Grade. In 1984 Theodore Sizer's influential Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School was published. Obviously, diverse entities focused on education, and no reforms could be promulgated without a commission-style report.

This reliance on reform reports continued unabated throughout the 1980s. Key areas for scrutiny included teacher education (A Nation Prepared [1986], Tomorrow's Teachers [1986]), educational administration (Leader's for America's Schools[1987]), improving school performance (Time for Results [1986]), and strengthening the economy through schooling (Investing in Our Children [1985], Children in Need [1987]). The pace of reform-report activity continued in the 1990s and the early part of the twenty-first century. Examples of such reports include government-sponsored documents, such as Does School Quality Matter, Beyond Rhetoric: A New American Agenda for Children and Families, and Prisoners of Time; reports from business groups, such as Investing in Teaching; and privately financed reports from think tanks and interest groups, such as The Teachers We Want and How to Get More of Them and The Essential Profession. It appears that any government agency or interest group wishing to propose a series of educational reforms often launch their initiative with a reform report. With the growth of the Internet and its ability to deliver information quickly and cheaply, reports continue to emerge and are readily available to anyone with access to a computer.


What can be said of reform reports across America's history? Clearly, such reports have been a mainstay of those interested in schools, though their use grew dramatically towards the latter part of the twentieth century. This history suggests that they will continue as a means of examining aspects of schooling and promoting particular solutions. Whether being merely symbolic or ceremonial in terms of creating a climate for considering change, or more directly functional in promoting specific policies into practice, they operate as a form of trickle-down reform, where some government agency or other body sets out policy recommendations for policymakers or those close to schools to consider. The policies that ultimately appear may not be as initially intended, but the reform reports help set the tone for the educational reform agenda that policymakers consider.


ADLER, MORTIMER J. 1982. The Paideia Proposal. New York: Macmillan.

BOYER, ERNEST L. 1983. High School: A Report on Secondary Education in America. New York: Harper and Row.

BUSINESS-HIGHER EDUCATION FORUM. 1983. America's Competitive Challenge: The Need for a National Response. Washington, DC: Business-Higher Education Forum.

CARD, DAVID, and KRUEGER, ALAN B. 1990. Does School Quality Matter? Returns to Education and the Characteristics of Public Schools in the United States. Washington, DC: Bureau of Economic Research.

CARNEGIE FORUM ON EDUCATION AND THE ECONOMY, TASK FORCE ON TEACHING AS A PROFESSION. 1986. A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century. New York: Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy.

CASWELL, HOLLIS L. 1929. City School Surveys. New York: Teachers College Press.

COLEMAN, JAMES S., et al. 1966. Equality of Educational Opportunity. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

COLLEGE ENTRANCE EXAMINATION BOARD. 1983. Academic Preparation for College: What Students Need to Know and Be Able to Do. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.

COMMISSION ON THE REORGANIZATION OF SECONDARY EDUCATION. 1918. Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

COMMISSION ON THE REORIENTATION OF SECONDARY EDUCATION. 1936. Issues of Secondary Education. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

COMMISSION ON THE REORIENTATION OF SECONDARY EDUCATION. 1937. Functions of Secondary Education. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

COMMITTEE FOR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT. 1985. Investing in Our Children. New York: Committee for Economic Development.

COMMITTEE FOR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT. 1987. Children in Need. New York: Committee for Economic Development.


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Our present system of education, with its emphasis on “Standardized Testing,” is both a glowing success and a colossal failure. The side one may come down on depends on what
we may perceive the purpose of education to be. The current clamor calls not for reform but simply for ways to increase the efficiency of a system whose premise and purpose must be questioned. The success or failure of an honest reform of the present system may well decide the fate of the American experiment.

If viewed honestly, the purpose of the current system of education is primarily designed to assure that industry will be supplied with a competent work force and that society will be made up of a stable citizenry. The rewards for compliance are monetary gain and social acceptance. In this respect, there is no question but that our current system is a glowing success, and nothing could better serve this educational purpose than standardized testing. With its emphasis on retention rather than thought, it makes for an unquestioning employee and an acquiescent civilian. This, in turn, makes possible a consumer-driven economy and society in which both value and achievement are measured, most often, in material gain. What we have in place of education is indoctrination. Such a system may instruct us as to the best way to “make a living,” but little in the ways in which we might live.

Standardized testing has become the mainstay of both “No Child Left Behind” of the Bush era and the more current “Race to the Top.” The strategy’s dubious success in terms of student and public acceptance has the professionals scrambling for answers. What the public and the professionals cannot seem to come to grips with is the void in student gratification that comes from having little or no voice in the procedure. The pride and joy of learning are replaced with an award for retention of data. This, unfortunately, diminishes the desire to learn, and it is my contention that the best teacher in the world cannot teach a student who has little or no desire to learn, while the student with such a desire cannot be prevented from learning.

While the professionals continue to debate and we ponder the true relevance of standardized testing, a more complete understanding of both the pros and cons can be found at this link:

In weighing the arguments for or against, I would like to add just two specific failings of the current system that are too often overlooked and ways in which they might be overcome. It may be well at this point to turn for the first to Socrates, who said, “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make him think.” It should be obvious, I should think, that the current system of instruction will, more than likely, actually discourage thinking and depress creativity. This approach stands in sharp contrast to the Socratic method in which the teacher, by asking questions, guides students to discovery. Curiosity is another victim of the current system in which instruction becomes obstruction. Again, as Socrates reminds us, “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” Here is a concluding admonition from this great mind that is well worth remembering: “The most important of all knowledge is how best to live.”

The current system may instruct us as to the best way to “make a living,” but it does little by way of enabling the student to live a full life. The full life I refer to is a life in which the individual has the opportunity to realize his or her innate and unique potential as a human being. To inhibit this potential is to deny it. The harmful effect of this inhibition for the individual student is incalculable. To paraphrase William Saroyan, it takes a lot of learning for a man to get to be himself. In the present system, this aspect of what it should mean to be educated and human is painfully ignored, and we should realize that the only true happiness one can know comes not from the acquisition of wealth but from the fulfillment of individual potential, whatever that may be. The objective of the system should be to help the individual student to find himself as something other than a lackey for industry and a sycophant for society.

Then, of course, there is the corruption born of a system that moves us from simple need to greed. It’s not only the system that becomes corrupt, for ultimately it will pervade the entire society it ostensibly serves. It has been sufficiently shown time and again that standardized testing leads to an irresistible tendency to cheat. It begins with the student whose subsequent life may be colored by what he scores. Then we have the teacher whose very employment may depend on the scores of those students. The same can be said of administrators who supervise the teachers. But it must be noted that it doesn’t stop there. An investigative report released in July of 2011 found that 44 out of 56 schools in Atlanta, Georgia cheated on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT). Guilty teachers and administrators all confessed to cheating and blamed “inordinate pressure” to meet targets set by district officials, saying that they faced severe consequences such as a negative evaluation or termination if they didn’t.

Who can doubt that such a tendency will inevitably carry over into the society at large, and since cheating has become so widespread, can easily be seen as not only an acceptable practice but a mandatory one? Morality is undermined. Trust is lost, and with the loss of trust, humanity is lost. This is a dire picture indeed. Can there be any hope?

I cautiously suggest that there just may be. It will of course demand a reversal of societal values with nothing short of revolution. For those who may scorn the possibility, I would remind them that it was not so long ago that women could not even vote. It was not so long ago that racism was tolerated, schools were segregated, and everyone not a WASP was stigmatized in some fashion or other. Admittedly, no less than with the others, it will be a slow but inevitable process, but I fear that the only alternative is anarchy and a failed state. It will mean that the values of humanity, altruism and brotherhood must replace the greed of a capitalistic economy that has lost its way--a capitalistic society that has planted the seeds of its own destruction. We must adhere to the Socratic admonition, “Prefer knowledge to wealth, for one is transitory, the other perpetual.”

As with any revolutionary change, it begins with education. To combat American exceptionalism, history must be revised to reveal the excesses of American imperialism. Geography must be reinstated to help us realize our global obligations. The sciences must be approached from a humanistic standpoint that allows for ethical considerations to keep pace with technology. The arts can no longer be considered a luxury relegated to the periphery. They are a necessity.

There is one last observation which I would like to make in this appeal. Since most of our current curricula are designed to meet the needs of industry and society, any meaningful reform will require an alteration of focus in which the intellectual and emotional needs of the individual student are paramount and properly addressed. In this regard, I would strongly suggest that the abhorrent standardized testing be replaced with aptitude testing beginning in pre-school. With the realization that each child has his or her own unique, innate potential, it would seem that unless that potential is recognized at an early stage, the child’s chances for the joy of fulfillment as a human being become limited.

Such an approach will most certainly meet with powerful opposition not only from an industry for which our current system is, in reality, a training ground, but also from a society that is all too comfortable with having us all alike. Before we ask the question of how to increase the effectiveness of the present system, we had best address the question of just what the purpose of education should be.