Saturday, December 17, 2016

School Reform: Fifteen Years of "Diet Plans" That Couldn't Fail

If you were grading school reform, what grade would you give it? I have updated this post to reflect a new rash of national test scores.

“Rash” seems like a good word in this context.

IMAGINE YOU WANTED to lose a few pounds. Most Americans do. (So this might not be hard to imagine.) Now picture some svelte fitness guru. He promises: “Follow my plan and you cannot go wrong. You will lose all the pounds you want. You will end up looking like a bikini model!”

You excitedly 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 $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. 

WELL, AFTER FIFTEEN YEARS of school reform that’s where we find ourselves, as a nation.

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 until 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 fifteenth in reading, with an average score of 504. In math we finished eighteenth with an average score of 493. In science, America’s teens were fourteenth with a score of 499.

Reporters took a quick glance at results and wrote fevered stories about how the United States was doomed! Talking heads on cable news saw the scores and decided it might make compelling viewing to blame teachers for everything that had gone 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 had to be involved. Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001.

So keep those first PISA scores in mind:

Reading: 504
Math: 493
Science: 499

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 absolutely going to work in the end. Just keep listening to us, they reassured millions of real educators, who were 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 since 2003.

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 going to work because everyone knew smarter teachers would be a thousand times more effective than the nincompoops we had in the classrooms now. Tens of thousands of teachers and administrators were axed under state laws when test scores didn’t rise. Others earned fat bonuses when scores 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!

Or not.

On the PISA test administered in 2012, U.S. students averaged 498 in reading, 481 in math and 497 in science.

Our teens were twenty points down, despite following a decade of surefire educational reform diet plans.

Twelve years of abject failure 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). And, yes, 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. After dithering for years, Congress phased out NCLB and replaced it with the Every Child Succeeds Act. Soon we were sure to see all the great 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?


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, yesno, and yes for too many young teachers, should send a chill through the education community.


I DECIDED to update this article when I saw that average ACT scores this year were the lowest in two decades. Only 40% of seniors this year “met the College Readiness Benchmark in math.” That’s the lowest level since 2004. The average math score was 20.5, the lowest mark in twenty years.

Good job school reformers, who never taught.

But wait, there’s more: College Readiness levels in reading also declined to the lowest levels since current benchmarks were instituted.

Good job school reformers who never teach!

You can find plenty of other evidence that the diet plans we’ve been spending billions on annually aren’t working, plus, as a bonus, you now see teacher shortages as the real joys of learning are destroyed. In 2000 the average college bound student scored a 514 in reading on the SAT’s and a 505 in mathematics. A new writing test was implemented in 2006; and the average score was a 497.

By 2016 average SAT scores had fallen to 508 in reading, 494 in math and 482 in writing, a cumulative 30-point decline. You could almost argue that “school reform” was making our students dumber.

(The 2017 SAT was totally restructured and scores cannot be compared with previous test results.)

You could think of all those billions of dollars spent on testing annually. You could think of all the anguish inflicted on students, teachers and administrators in the process. You could think, if you were a dedicated educator, as most educators are, of what you and your peers could have done with all the money wasted to improve the lives of children. And then you could look at all the “progress” reflected in the national test results. Compare results on the ACT from 2000 and 2016:

                        2000               2016

English            20.5               20.3
Math               20.7               20.7
Reading          21.4               21.4
Science               21                    21
Writing*          7.7                  6.5

Composite         21                   21

*The writing section on the ACT’s was implemented in 2006 and, like scores on the SATs, declined precipitously.

So: sixteen years of academic “dieting,” and scores were down slightly.

Well, then, one last hope remained to prove that “school reform” was actually working. You could look at scores for the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Average math scores for seniors went up three points, between 2005 and 2009, from 150 to 153. The last math test for seniors was in 2015 and the score had dropped a point. Two points up over a decade.

The NAEP reading test dates from 1992, when the average score for seniors was 292. In 2002 the average score was 287. (The test is not given every year; so we have no score for 2000.)

Thirteen years later the average score was 287 still.

Yes, good job, indeed, school reformers.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. When I posted this on Facebook, I posed this question: "Am I the only educator who believes standardized testing has been doing more harm than good in American education?"

    1. Amy Sherman Truesdell: No, you definitely are not the only one.

    2. Mary Hennessy: Totally agree, thought that from the beginning of my teaching career.

    3. Matt Seto (a former student of mine) checked in: Standardized testing is not for the kids, it's for the teachers. Your fallacy is that you believe all teachers are near your caliber.

    4. I replied to Matt: Hi, Matt; my experience was testing cramped what all good teachers were trying to do, and reduced teaching to a rote activity, where we had to focus on a few basic facts (in social studies)

    5. Matt responded: I'll admit to that. I'm partly playing devil's advocate here- I recognize the politics and profiteering cause a ton of damage. But I've run in to an uncomfortable number of my kids' teacher where rote activity seemed to be about their level. I hope they have a few that are like you.

    6. I appreciated the compliment, but here's my fear, I replied: I'm afraid the testing fosters the rote learning

  3. Amy Sherman Truesdell had this to add: Standardized tests are for the corporations who profit from them. They do nothing for the teachers.

  4. Gary Ruther, another former star student, like Matt, jumped into the discussion: I have mixed feelings on this issue. I taught in Texas, where Administrators took standardized test results too seriously and I now teach in California where many in my school community take testing too lightly. It is frustrating when a community population expects its children to perform poorly on any assessment.

    1. Joel Lahrman, also a former star student then posed this question for Gary: What is your feeling on the STAAR tests in Texas? My oldest is in kindergarten so she's a few years away from it, and there have been measures undertaken to start lessening their importance, but I've already got my frowny face on. They restricted recess for younger students last year while the third-graders were taking the tests, that already makes me not like it.

    2. Gary replied: I taught during the time high school kids took 5 subject tests during their freshman, sophmore, and junior years. The tests were TAKS and STAAR (EOC). Then, TEA dropped this number. I teach math so students went from taking Alg 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2 tests to taking only Algebra 1. If we are talking about Social Studies and English, I see the ambivalence toward standardized testing but I'm not against it in math.

    3. Then he added: One thing is still for sure. The number of US students that graduate from college majoring in STEM fields of study is still too low. It is worse when you look at the stats for women and people of color.

    4. My last comment in response was this: I can see it more in math; although, so far, we have no evidence scores are going up, even here. I consider the collateral damage (Iraq War!) of lost recess time, lost time for art, music, etc., damage in social studies (I was told my last year NOT to teach writing) and more to be far too high a price for the marginal gains in STEM. (I can't find any good evidence there have been gains in that area at all. I may be missing something, however.)

  5. Erin Mauer, another young lady who made teaching easy in my class, chipped in with this take: Standardized testing is absolutely for the teachers: kids must pass so they get their budgets, merit raises, and keep their credentialing (in this state at least). These kids do nothing BUT study for those tests. They aren't prepared for college, some aren't even prepared for trade school. Kids who fall behind find themselves on IEP's and summarily exempted from standardized testing so that under performing students don't bring down their scores.

    1. Dave Harris, a respected Loveland High School teacher, had this to say (and I concur completely): Standardized testing is for politicians. They want the appearance of pushing education. Standardized test remove the ability of local schools to teach what the community wants taught.

  6. Tom Snyder, also a star in my class in eons past, jumped into the discussion here: Standardized testing and standardized teaching and standardized education in general are all bad in my opinion. Society works better when different people learn different things and become experts in different things, preferably in areas where they are interested and where they have some talents. Education should encourage that rather than try to make everyone do the same thing.

  7. Mark Sherman, another excellent teacher, now retired, had the last comment for the day: I've never seen any evidence that those tests ever helped anything in education.