School reform hasn’t lifted achievement

School reform has promised a lot and delivered little except for “intellectual dishonesty and political puffery,” writes Robert J. Samuelson in the Washington Post.

Since the 1960s, reading and math achievement has improved in elementary school but faded out by high school, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  The racial achievement gap narrowed modestly but stopped improving in the late 1980s.

Standard theories don’t explain this meager progress. Too few teachers? Not really. From 1970 to 2008, the student population increased 8 percent and the number of teachers rose 61 percent. The student-teacher ratio has fallen sharply, from 27-to-1 in 1955 to 15-to-1 in 2007. Are teachers paid too little? Perhaps, but that’s not obvious. In 2008, the average teacher earned $53,230; two full-time teachers married to each other and making average pay would belong in the richest 20 percent of households (2008 qualifying income: $100,240). Maybe more preschool would help. Yet, the share of 3- and 4-year-olds in preschool has rocketed from 11 percent in 1965 to 53 percent in 2008.

Samuelson sees two reasons reforms have produced meager results.

First, we still don’t know how to teach inner-city students well enough to overcome their disadvantages. A few schools have succeeded, but the changes haven’t been replicated widely.

Second, students are less motivated to work hard.

The unstated assumption of much school “reform” is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out, compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, helping explain why early achievement gains evaporate.

As more students attend high school, standards fall, Samuelson writes. An estimated “60 percent of incoming community college students and 30 percent of freshmen at four-year colleges need remedial reading and math courses.”

School reform ignores these realities, he writes.

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  1. > the authority of teachers and schools has eroded

    This is true, but it’s not the whole problem. The bigger, more dangerous problem is that we, as a society don’t place a value on education the way we used to. Parents no longer tell their children that a good education (whatever that might mean) is the only assured path to future success. Going to school is just a tedious drudge that must be suffered, not a vital step towards success.

    When education lost its vital place in society, it was only natural that schools and teachers lost some of their authority.

  2. I gather the “standard theories” don’t include curriculum.

    Could that be part of the problem?

  3. Homeschooling Granny says:


    And the decline of the two parent family with its increased ability for an adult to be involved with the kids education. The decline of the family dinner over which each person reported on their day and parents learned about what was going on at school.

    I hear from family and friends with children in public school that their kids teachers are fine and their kids are OK. But these are 2-parent households that eat together and parents support the school. Can schools really compensate when this is missing?

  4. samuelson is brilliant.

  5. we still don’t know how to teach inner-city students well enough to overcome their disadvantages.

    The assumption that these disadvantages can be remedied by schools (or at all) leads to a witch-hunt mentality when intervention after intervention fails to produce results.  The accusations of “cultural racism” and “stereotype threat” become ever-more hysterical over time.

    Someday the public will get fed up with this.  Maybe teachers will get sick of being scapegoated and switch sides.  It can’t come too soon, because we are out of money to throw at faulty solutions for possibly-insoluble problems.

  6. Rob, I don’t think any parent in America would say that education is not important. On the other hand, many parents don’t seem to understand that education demands serious effort on the part of their kids; they think teachers should magically make it happen to them. I think Samuelson is very much right that kids don’t try hard enough. The official edworld dogma declares that motivation is 100% the teacher’s responsibility and that negative sanctions (e.g. retention) are barbaric. This is wrongheaded. Threats, unfortunately, are necessary to get the underperforming majority to get their butts into gear. It is a national scandal that community college freshmen are taking pre-algebra! I’ll bet not one of these kids really tried hard in their k-12 years. We allow this to happen with our wussy Rousseauian policies. I surveyed my homeroom last week asking, “Who agrees with the statement that kids at this school don’t try very hard?” Everyone raised their hand. It’s child neglect NOT to deliver consequences while they’re still young. Otherwise we set them up for catastrophic consequences when they’re grown up.

    I agree with Katherine that one key culprit that Samuelson is missing is curriculum, or more precisely, our national prejudice against transmitting bodies of knowledge into kids’ minds. Until we understand that the vaunted “critical thinking skills” we all clamor for depend upon as solid base of built-in knowledge, we’re not going to get anywhere.

  7. Ben has nailed it! Every parent survey finds that parents think education is very important (surprise!). How many are willing to trash the idea that doing well in school is a betrayal of their racial/ethnic group and demand hard work? How many of them are willing to make sure that the TV and all other media are OFF until homework is done? How many are willing to make sure their kids get to bed at an appropriate time? How many are willing to make sure the kids have breakfast (oatmeal is cheap and nutritious), a bag lunch, all their supplies and clean clothes before they leave for school? How many are willing to make the effort to go to the library, or museum or historical site? In DC, as in many cities, all of these things are close, but for most of the kids in some areas of the city, they might as well be on the moon. Parents and students need to live up to their responsibilities. Curriculum choices and instructional practices are very important, but as a relative used to say: “learning is an active process, not a passive one.”

  8. > Every parent survey finds that parents think
    > education is very important (surprise!).

    That’s only lip service, however. Ask that parent when their student last saw THEM reading a book. Or when the last time was that they told their kid, “No, you can’t go hang with your friends until you finish your homework.” Or when they last looked over their kid’s homework before they turned it in.

    Parents may SAY they value eduction, but there’s not much evidence they’re willing to actually DO anything towards that goal. Kids pick up on this pretty fast.

    Another thing to try would be to ask kids, “Which of these things will do the most towards making you successful as an adult:”

    * Being a success-oriented person who doesn’t make failure an option
    * Developing my inner self and my artistic side
    * Developing my skills at sports
    * Getting good grades in school
    * Having kids
    * Being careful with my money
    * Picking a high-paying career

    I’d love to know how they answer.

  9. Shameless self-promotion.

    Not that I feel that bad, since I plug Joanne Jacobs all the time. And I thank her for mentioning me.