Education reform—will it ever end?

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The current rush to high stakes testing and high school exit examinations appears to be just another of the many “reforms” that have been presented as the panacea for education. Since the early days of Horace Mann in the 1830s and 1840s reform has cascaded over education. Mann described the common school as the “greatest invention ever made by man.” There were devotional Bible readings in schools to make a virtuous America.

The mid-20th century saw the “Life Adjustment” curriculum, and with the Sputnik era came the push to instill “academic rigor” in the secondary schools. Then came open education, performance contracting, behavioral objectives, modular scheduling and many more movements that were to be the needed improvement in education.

More recent reforms include year-round education, differentiated staffing, minimum competencies, self-paced instruction, competency-based teacher education and management by objectives. None of these have been the magic solution sought by American educators and the general public.

Henry Perkinson in The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith in Education, 1865-1930, addressed the common question regarding schools and social problems: “If the schools can’t solve these problems, then who can?” The question raises two assumptions according to Perkinson: “First, that all social problems are solvable; second, that the schools are the panacea for all social problems.” He points out, and this is not the common thinking, that schools are limited institutions.

“Reforms are doomed to failure because we underestimate the complexity of what we are up against and are unable or unwilling to use the cumulative experience humans have acquired over the years,” according to Seymore Sarason in his book, The Case for Change.

I am afraid that sometimes those involved politically with education fail to recognize the “modesty of the school’s clout” as Robert Evans stated in “The Great Accountability Factor.” Thomas Sergiovanni maintains that some policy makers believe that finding the “right change strategy promises victory in the national and even in the international brain race.” The history of reforms shows the single answer everyone is searching for doesn’t exist.

So what about standards based, high stakes testing and high school exit examinations? If history is dotted with reform failures, why would these be any different? Will they get the expected results, or be reviewed by history as just more stopgap programs?

According to Linda Darling-Hammond and her colleagues at Stanford University, state laws that require students to pass an exit examination to receive a high school diploma can harm students and schools. In Multiple Measures Approaches to High School Graduation, they present evidence that “inflexible high school exit exam policies can reduce graduation rates (especially among minority students and students with disabilities); narrow the curriculum; and lead schools to neglect higher-order thinking skills.”

The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) notes graduation rates fell between 1998 and 2001 in five states that required exit examinations during that period. Graduation rates dropped 4 percent in Indiana, 2 percent in North Carolina, 3 percent in New York, 5 percent in Florida and 1 percent in South Carolina. Other studies have supported this trend. By placing such importance on testing, schools tend to narrow their curriculum to focus only on what is to be tested.

What happens to those who do not graduate? They are dropouts. The NCES estimates California’s graduation rate for 2002-2003 at 74.1 percent, slightly above the U.S. average of 73.9 percent. Thirty percent of our children continue to disappear into the shadows. If the trend holds, we too can expect a higher dropout rate as a result of high school exit examinations.

Let’s examine the Nebraska model. Despite pressure to adopt a statewide test, state leaders continue to believe in the superiority of local assessments. The School-based Teacher-led Assessment and Reporting System (STARS) ensures decisions about student learning are made in the classroom, thereby honoring teachers and their professional judgment. This system demands hard work and has led to many positive results in addition to improved student performance.

While no reform is perfect, it appears that the Nebraska system has many advantages. Such a change might prevent the expected increase in the high school dropout rate because of the high school exit exam.

Larry Wilder, Ed. D., oversees the training of school administrators as director of the administrative services program in the Fresno Pacific University School of Education. He is a former assistant superintendent at the Fresno County Office of Education and mayor of Reedley.

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