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.