IMAGINE YOU WANTED to lose a few pounds. (Most of us do; so this might not be too hard to imagine.) Now picture some svelte fitness guru who promises: “Follow my plan and you cannot go wrong. You will lose all the pounds you want.”
You try the plan for six months and gain seven pounds. You waste $1500 dollars on diet supplements too.
A second weight-loss guru comes your way. “Follow my plan and you cannot go wrong,” she insists. “You will lose all the pounds you want.”
You do as told again, and put on ten pounds. Even your “fat pants” no longer fit. (Not that I would know from bitter experience.) You wasted another $1200 on diet shakes and motivational videos.
Eventually, you try a third, fourth and fifth diet plan. Every time, the gurus promise you cannot go wrong.
Not one plan works as promised.
Not even close.
Not even close.
Well, after fifteen years of school reform that’s exactly where we find ourselves as a nation today.
You may not recall, but the push to “fix” U.S. education began in earnest in 2001, in large part due to test results from countries round the world. These results came from a test that had not existed before 2000: the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. In the spring of that year, 15-year-olds from 32 nations, mostly first-world countries, took the test for the first time. U.S. students finished 15th in reading, with an average score of 504. In math we finished 18th with an average score of 493. In science, America’s teens came in 14th with a score of 499.
Reporters took a quick glance at results and wrote fevered stories about how the United States was falling behind! Talking heads on cable news saw the scores and decided it might make compelling viewing to blame teachers for everything that was wrong. School reformers, safely ensconced in think tanks far from the educational front lines, studied and analyzed and promised—if we would only listen to them—that they knew exactly how to get those PISA scores up! Finally, politicians decided they must get involved. Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001.
So keep those first PISA scores in mind:
IN 2003 THE TEST WAS administered again. This time, students from 41 countries were involved. In reading, U.S. scores fell to 495. America’s teens dipped in math to 483. Science scores were down, with the average 15-year-old scoring 491. After two years of reform scores were down twenty-seven points.
The politicians and reformers were puzzled. But they never doubted their great plans. They were sure to work in the end. Just keep listening to us, they reassured millions of real educators, who were already starting to wonder. In 2006 PISA was given again. U.S. reading scores were thrown out. In math, however, our kids scored 498; in science they averaged 489. In other words, reform was working! Math scores were up five points! Oh, wait, science scores were down ten.
Overall: down five!
In a vain effort to improve standardized scores of all kinds, schools across the nation cut back time spent on “non-essential” learning, like music, art and physical education. School reformers (again: people who never actually teach) promised all these sacrifices would be worth it in the end.
Like the seventeen-year locusts, only appearing far more often, PISA returned in 2009. Reading results for U.S. teens: 500; math: 487; science: 502. Scores were still down a total of seven points.
Scores for U. S. students still looked bad in 2009!
They would look even worse in years ahead.
With the years flying by—and scores refusing to rise—more and more changes were forced upon administrators, teachers and students. Charter schools spread like kudzu because charter schools couldn’t fail! Teach for America was sure to work because everyone knew smarter teachers would be a thousand times more effective than the nincompoops in the classrooms we already had. Tens of thousands of teachers and administrators were axed under various state laws when test scores didn’t rise, while others earned fat bonuses when they did. (See: Atlanta cheating scandal.) By 2012 testing was costing states and the federal government $1.7 billion per year. Surely, by then, reform had to have worked!
On the PISA test administered in 2012, U.S. students averaged 498 in reading, 481 in math and 497 in science.
Our teens were still twenty points down.
Twelve years of abject failure still didn’t faze arrogant reformers and pompous politicians. Sure, SAT scores were down too. Sure ACT scores remained flat (that was good news compared to the rest). Okay, true. Reading and math scores for seniors on the National Assessment for Education Progress hardly budged or fell.
The gurus kept telling everyone how great their plans were. By 2015 No Child Left Behind had morphed into “Race to the Top.” Common Core had come along; and after dithering for years, Congress phased out NCLB and replaced it with the Every Child Succeeds Act. Finally, we were going to see the end results of a decade-and-a-half of top-down school reform.
For a sixth time the PISA test was administered in 2015.
Now, 15-year-olds from seventy countries and educational systems took the test. How did U.S. students fare?
THE ENVELOPE PLEASE.
In reading our students scored 497. After fifteen years of reform and tens of billions wasted, scores were down seven points.
Fifteen years of listening to blowhard politicians—and students averaged 470 in math, a depressing 23-point skid.
Science scores averaged 496, still down three points.
The idea of raising PISA scores had been the foundation on which reform was built and after fifteen years America’s teens were scoring 33 points worse.
Teachers were left to ponder several questions. First, and foremost, had real harm been done to students, all in the name of reform? Second, did the reformers really know what they were doing? Third, had all the changes, particularly the insane focus on data collection, even to the point of curtailing actual time-on-task working with students, made the job so much more frustrating and so much less rewarding that perhaps they might not want to remain in the field much longer?
THE ANSWERS, from this retired educator’s perspective being, yes, no, and yes for too many young teachers, should send a chill through the entire education community.