As the widening gap between America’s haves and have-nots continues to cast an ominous cloud over a nation that allegedly provides its members with hopes and dreams, the public education system needs to be utilized as a tool capable of curbing income inequality. Sadly, the pervasive achievement gap that exists in public schools has blackened the integrity of American democracy and directly perpetuates the nation’s grotesque rates of income inequality. A firm believer in the power of education to transform society, prominent education reformer Horace Mann once said,
When we have spread competence through all the abodes of poverty, when we have substituted knowledge for ignorance in the minds of the whole people, when we have reformed the vicious and reclaimed the criminal, then may we invite all neighboring nations to behold the spectacle, and say to them, in the conscious elation of virtue, ‘Rejoice with me,’ for I have found that which was lost. (666)
In 1983, the federal government began to take steps toward finding what is “lost” in public schools. Under the direction of the Regan administration, the National Commission on Excellence in Education evaluated the school system and reported that educational “mediocrity” had put the nation at “risk” (ANAR 113). In A Nation At Risk (ANAR), the Commission said, “Part of what is at risk is the promise first made on this continent: All, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost” (115). The Commission’s report and recognition that all children were not getting an equal education garnered national attention, prompting the federal government to craft educational reform strategies that would work toward improving schools and narrowing the achievement gap. But why and how did the federal government’s authority over the public school system increase? With the release of ANAR, the general public, business leaders, and elected officials looked to the federal government to reform an educational system that was failing students and jeopardizing America’s economic system. In the 1990’s, the popularity of accountability-based reform measures spread amongst federal government officials and gained momentum with reports of a Texas accountability model that had experienced success in closing the achievement gap. In result, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was able to pass in 2002, giving the federal government unprecedented control over the functions and operations of the public school system as it mandated that States implement high-stakes testing and create cultures of accountability.
When the eighteen month study of the National Commission on Excellence in Education culminated in the unsettling conclusion that, “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur—others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments,” educational reform strategies on the federal level started to dominate national discussion (113). Not only did the Commission report that American students had fallen well behind other industrialized nations on student achievement tests, but over ten percent of seventeen-year-olds were functionally illiterate and high school student’s scores on standardized tests were steadily declining (115). Furthermore, the Commission recommended that high schools should adopt stronger graduation requirements, increase classroom instruction and administer more homework, and hold teachers to higher standards (25). It recommended that high schools require all students to complete four years of English, three years of mathematics, three years of science, three years of social studies, and one semester of computer science (27). Commenting on the principle goals of ANAR, Former assistant secretary of education Diane Ravitch says:
ANAR called for sensible, mainstream reforms to renew and repair our school system. The reforms it recommended were appropriate to the nature of schools: strengthening the curriculum for all students; setting clear and reasonable high school graduation requirements that demonstrate students readiness for postsecondary education or the modern workplace; establishing clear and appropriate college entrance requirements; improving the quality of textbooks and tests; expecting students to spend more time on schoolwork; establishing higher requirements for new recruits into the teaching profession; and increasing teacher compensation. (30)
When ANAR released its recommendations, public opinion polls showed that mainstream concerns over educational quality had sharply risen. Business leaders voiced that America’s ability to compete in a global economy would be undermined by the failures of the education system (McDonnel 27). After all, the Commission said, “The world is indeed one global village. We live among determined, well-educated, and strongly motivated competitors. America’s position in the world may once have been reasonably secure with only a few exceptionally well-trained men and women. It is no longer” (ANAR 14). While, ANAR revealed the federal government’s rising concern over the well-being of the public school system and how this would impact the economy, its recommendations were developed with the intention that States would use the Report as a framework to guide their own, independent process of educational reform. The Report advocated for standards-based reform, but it did not require the States to carry out its recommendations. As the pressure to improve schools became more palpable, the federal governments’ incentive to reform public schools increased.
In the 1990’s, testing and accountability became the focal points of federal education reform plans in America (Ravitch 95). Before this transformation of ideology occurred, both President George H.W. Bush and President Clinton advocated for the creation of a system of national standards, but were unsuccessful in getting legislation passed (95-96). Despite their failure to get reform measures passed, Bush and Clinton’s plans reflected the federal government’s growing desire to expand its role in public education. While Bush’s America 2000 program and Clinton’s Goals 2000 program focused primarily on voluntary national standards and tests, a growing number of politicians became intoxicated by the idea that increased accountability would lead to a better school system. Ravitch says, “In the 1990’s, elected officials of both parties came to accept as secular gospel the idea that testing and accountability would necessarily lead to better schools…It became a ritual for Republicans and Democrats alike to bemoan the lack of accountability in American public education…” (95-96). These politicians pointed to a successful model of accountability in Texas, where officials claimed that the achievement gap between white and minority students was narrowing, as tangible evidence of the benefits to holding administrators, teachers, and students accountable in schools (96). The growing popularity of accountability-based reform amongst elected officials, coupled with Texas’ success in raising test scores and graduation rates, led to the passing of NCLB, which gave the federal government unprecedented control over public education and how it operates.
The Bush administration’s NCLB Act contained a host of federal mandates that were all but forced on the States. While the ANAR report provided the State’s with a template for standards-based reform, NCLB imposed high-stakes testing on the States and in doing so, altered the function of public school curriculums. Highlighting the differences between ANAR and NCLB, Ravitch says, “ANAR envisioned a public school system that offered a rich, well-balanced, and coherent curriculum…NCLB, by contrast, was bereft of any educational ideas. It was a technocratic approach to school reform that measured ‘success’ only in relation to standardized test scores…” (29). If a State refused to comply with the mandates laid out by NCLB, they risked losing millions of federally funded dollars for their public schools (29). Commenting on the unprecedented level of federal involvement in public education, University of Rochester professor David Hursh said, “The passage of the No Child Left Behind Act marks the largest intervention of the federal government into education in the history of the United States” (Hursh). So what did NCLB actually mandate? In explaining NCLB, writers from edweek.org said, “At the core of the No Child Left Behind Act were a number of measures designed to drive broad gains in student achievement and to hold states and schools more accountable for student progress” (edweek.org). These measures included annual testing for grades three through eight in reading and math. It also required that States bring one hundred percent of its students to proficiency levels on state tests by 2013-2014 (edweek.org). If an individual school failed to make “adequate yearly progress” towards the overarching goal of one hundred percent student proficiency in back-to-back years, students would be given the opportunity to attend another public school. If a school continued to fail to make progress, the school would potentially be faced with “governance changes.” Furthermore, states were required to develop annual report cards that charted student-achievement progress in different schools districts. Teachers were to be held accountable as well. Every teacher of a core content area had to be “highly qualified” in the subject matter that he or she taught (edweek.org). And, in a culture of accountability created through NCLB, public school curriculums were narrowed because of the strong emphasis placed on high-stakes tests that could make or break the futures of both teachers and students.
According to Hursh, NCLB was passed primarily because of its grand promise to provide every American child with a quality education and close the achievement gap between white and minority students (Hursh). But did NCLB lived up to this promise? A 2006 study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project found that under NCLB,
Neither a significant rise in achievement, nor closure of the racial achievement gaps is being achieved. Small early gains in math have reverted to the preexisting pattern. If that is true, all the pressure and sanctions have, so far, been in vain or even counterproductive…. On the issue of closing the gap for minority and poor children, a central goal of NCLB, there are also no significant changes since NCLB was enacted. (Hursh)
Not only did NCLB fail to live up to its high expectations, but it also forced teachers to narrow curriculums because of the importance placed on bringing all students to proficiency levels on high-stakes tests (Ravitch 107). For example, a 2007 report by The Center on Education Policy found that in a nationally represented group of school districts, over sixty percent had increased class time spent on mathematics and reading while over forty percent had reduced the class time spent on science, social studies, and the arts (108). Six years after Harvard Civil Rights Project’s finding, in a 2012 interview, Ravitch went ever farther in her criticism of NCLB. She said,
After 10 years of NCLB, we should have seen dramatic progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, but we have not. By now, we should be able to point to sharp reductions of the achievement gaps between children of different racial and ethnic groups and children from different income groups, but we cannot…many children continue to be left behind, and we know who those children are: They are the same children who were left behind 10 years ago. (Strauss)
If NCLB has not worked towards eliminating poverty and closing the achievement gap that perpetuates income inequality, how can the public school system be improved moving forward?
Deeply embedded into the minds of many prominent American educational reformers is the redemptive belief that if operated properly, the public education system can provide its citizens with an opportunity to achieve a more perfect society. For example, in 1848, Horace Mann argued that the greatest combater of social inequality is education. He said, “Education…beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, — the balance-wheel of the social machinery” (669). Sharing Mann’s sentiments on the relationship between education and society, in 1900, reformer John Dewey warned against an unequal educational system, saying, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy” (19). In 1904, President of the National Federation of Teachers Margaret A. Haley said that the “fundamental object of the public school in a democracy” is to “preserve and develop the democratic ideal” (145). As these educational reformers suggest, the quality of education that children receive has a lasting impact on the quality of democracy they live in. With this in mind, it becomes clear that the high-stakes tests that currently define and dictate public school curriculums need to be eradicated and replaced with well-balanced curriculums that prepare students to become active participants in American democracy. Ravitch says, “Tests are necessary and helpful. But tests must be supplemented by human judgment. When we define what matters in education only by what we can measure, we are in serious trouble. When that happens, we tend to forget that schools are responsible for shaping character, developing sound minds in healthy bodies, and forming citizens for our democracy…” (167). Under the current conditions set forth by NCLB, the American public school system has sadly become an establishment solely concerned with high-stakes tests. If the federal government wants to positively impact the educational system, it must heed the words of the long-list of above-mentioned reformers and transform public schools into institutions that preserve and extend the democratic ideal that every child deserves to have hopes and dreams.
Dewey, John. The School and Society. 3rd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1900. University of California Lib. Hathi Trust Digital Library. Web. 26 April 2013.
Haley, Margaret. “Why Teachers Should Organize.” National Educational Association. Journal of Addresses and Proceedings of the Forty-Third Annual Meeting, 145–152. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1904. University of Illinois Lib. Hathi Trust Digital Library. Web. 27 April 2013.
Hursh, David. “Exacerbating Inequality: The Failed Promise of the No Child Left Behind Act.” Race Ethnicity and Education 10.3 (2007): 295-308. Web. 28 April 2013.
Mann, Horace. Life and Works of Horace Mann. Ed. Mary Mann. Vol. 3. Boston: Horace B. Fuller, 1868. University of California Lib. Hathi Trust Digital Library. Web. 27 April 2013.
McDonnell, Lorraine M. “No Child Left Behind and the Federal Role in Education: Evolution or Revolution?” Peabody Journal of Education 80.2 (2005): 19-38. Web. 28 April 2013.
National Commission on Excellence in Education. “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.” The Elementary School Journal 84.2 (1983): 112-130. Web. 25 April 2013.
“No Child Left Behind.” Edweek.org. Education Week, 19 Sept. 2011. Web. 27 April 2013.
Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books, 2010. Print.
Strauss, Valerie. “Ravitch: No Child Left Behind and the Damage Done.” Washingtonpost.com. The Washington Post Company. 10 Jan. 2012. Web. 27 April 2013.