George W. Bush came to Washington in 2001 with what many in the educational establishment considered a radical idea: we can educate our children better if we insist on high standards and hold schools accountable for meeting them.
The centerpiece of the president’s education reform was the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, with its “carrots and sticks” approach rewarding progress and disciplining — even dissolving — schools that consistently fail. It passed Congress with bipartisan support. But its critics charged the act’s emphasis on testing and accountability would unfairly penalize schools with many poor and minority students.
The president, for his part, famously countered the “soft bigotry of low expectations” largely accounted for the educational decline among poor and minority children.
For some time, the argument was in an empirical vacuum, each side guided more by pre-determined attitudes than evidence.
Today, however, the numbers are in, and the direct evidence clearly demonstrates standards work. In fact, not only do standards work for children as a whole, they may have their most beneficial effect on precisely those disadvantaged students some feared would be left farther behind.
The No Child Left Behind Act was in fact a nationwide expansion of reform efforts already under way in schools around the country. So we have data that go back several years. Some of the most compelling comes from a 2001 Education Trust that identified 4,500 schools serving more than a million very poor and minority students. Yet, their students performed among the top one-third of schools in their states. And they often outperformed predominantly white schools in advantaged communities.
These schools often had common features: They used state standards in designing curriculum and evaluating students and teachers, they monitored student progress and gave extra support to those who needed it, and they held teaching professionals accountable.
A similar 2000 study came to the same conclusions: The secret of success — by now an open secret — is setting high expectations focused on real achievement measured by frequent testing, not fuzzy, feel-good criteria dictated by some educator’s whim. Also important, the study found successful schools aligned their curriculum to meet state standards and — not surprisingly — provided extra help for students in need.
A recent Stanford University study dramatically corroborated these findings, and should finally put to rest the education establishment’s hand-wringing over the supposedly deleterious effects of standards and testing. The Stanford study demonstrated high accountability and extensive testing led to high scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, particularly among African-American and Hispanic students. Stronger accountability did not increase dropouts, or cause more students to be left behind, as some feared. On the contrary, the analysis showed greater progress for both at-risk and gifted students.
Perhaps the most surprising finding, at least to some, is that strong accountability reduced teacher turnover.
This of course runs contrary to what many educators still say: that it is unfair to hold teachers in disadvantaged schools to high standards and it will only cause many of them to change schools or drop out of education all together. The finding is intuitive, however, if one assumes most choose to teach out of love for it and are naturally happier in an evidently working system that promotes success rather than wallows in excuses.
It seems clear the No Child Left Behind Act will continue pushing these very positive trends forward. There are, however, several areas where improvement may be desired.
We may want to expand beyond the tests’ exclusive focus on math and reading (and science in 2007) to other important subjects such as history, civics and writing. Less expensive and time-consuming computer-adaptive tests would allow more frequent sampling and enable schools to respond to their students’ educational needs in “real time.” Parent and student surveys can be especially important to those who do not feel challenged enough and might, through school choice, opt for a more rigorous educational experience.
Finally, national standards and testing would enable educators across the country to compare systems, and over time militate toward the adoption of best practices nationwide.
In the meantime, the lesson is clear: Standards work. No Child Left Behind is nationalizing a reform movement that promises to lift American education out of its long decline. Some educational holdouts now suggest weakening its requirements. Their counsel should be resisted. America should stay the course, accelerate reform and bring opportunity, which only a standards-based education can provide, to all its children.
Herbert J. Walberg is a member of Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education and a contributor to the Koret Task Force’s new book, “Within Our Reach: How America Can Educate Every Child.”