Maybe it will take time for No Child Left Behind to work. Maybe our young people have skills that are not revealed by standardized tests. But December was not an encouraging month for American students. A New York Times article titled “US Students Fare Badly in International Survey of Math Skills” cited America as having the poorest outcomes per dollar spent on education and ranking 28th of 40 countries in mathematics and 18th in reading. A week later, looking at different data, NPR reported, “US Students Trail Elite in International Tests.”
In 1983 the report “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” declared that an undemanding school system was dumbing down our workforce and thus impeding our ability to compete in an information age and global economy. The report accused the nation not only of slighting standards but also of reneging on our commitment to equality. Among its recommendations for educational reform was to “make teaching a more rewarding and respected profession.” With memorable phrases and hyperbolic language, “A Nation at Risk” shook up the educational establishment, describing “a rising tide of mediocrity” that threatened our future and reminding us that “history is not kind to idlers.”
In the 20 years after “A Nation at Risk” was published, many states raised graduation requirements, increased instructional reform, and mandated student-testing standards. Educators experimented with smaller classes, open classrooms, block schedules, interdisciplinary courses, parent involvement, scripted curriculum, charter schools, vouchers, and schools for profit. The report also led to the start of a standards and accountability movement–the forerunner of No Child Left Behind.
Despite the call to action of “A Nation at Risk” and the ensuing reform and additional funding, student achievement in grades K-12, at least as measured by standardized tests, languished. Of course there were students who excelled, and the Department of Education found the usual suspects: educated parents, demanding courses, homework, minimal television, and private schools.
Inexplicably, the nation flourished–even as our schools languished–entering a long period of economic growth and high individual productivity. Perhaps the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests do not correlate with economic achievement. Perhaps a cadre of advanced students propelled the nation forward and those without basic skills staffed low-wage jobs. And of course failure and conflict produce documents that attract attention, particularly the kind of attention the media give schools.
Nonetheless, we want to do better, especially for the poorest students. We also have legitimate concerns about a generation of young people educated by video games and reality television who read reluctantly and write laboriously. In a nation threatened by terrorists, we cannot afford young people ignorant of history and government, refusing to vote. In a world shaped by science and technology, Algebra I is vital and America could easily lose its competitive edge. An idealistic nation, we want and expect a high level of opportunity and achievement for all Americans–and thus No Child Left Behind.
The premise of No Child Left Behind is that Americans can make all students proficient by the year 2016. It is a multifaceted reform effort designed to push the educational establishment, set standards, test achievement, experiment with alternatives to the public-school monopoly, and offer federal dollars to low-achieving schools in exchange for results. As in “A Nation a Risk,” a key component of No Child Left Behind is “a qualified teacher in every classroom.”
Thomas Jefferson credited his teacher, Dr. William Small, with “fixing the destinies” of his life. Eleanor Roosevelt insisted that her headmistress, Marie Souvestre, gave her an appetite for knowledge and a social conscience. In John McCain’s book, Faith of My Fathers, he refers to his coach and teacher, William B. Ravenel, as “as wise and capable as any man could expect to be.”
If this anecdotal evidence is not convincing, listen to the research. The Teaching Commission, headed by former IBM President Louis Gerstner, asked what could be done to fix persistent problems in American education and concluded: “an intense, sustained and effective campaign to revamp our country’s teaching force.” In its just-released report, “Teaching at Risk: A Call to Action,” the commission goes so far as to say, “The proven value of excellent teaching…all but demolishes the notion that socioeconomic status is the most important determinant of what kids can learn.” At Harvard, economist Ronald Ferguson correlated teachers’ test scores with the test scores of their students, and found that teacher expertise accounts for more difference in student performance than any other factor.
Yet of all the recommendations in “A Nation at Risk” the ones least acted upon have been those relating to the teacher. The 1983 report called for rigorous educational standards in teacher-preparation programs, higher salaries, eleven-month contracts, career ladders, peer review, and master teachers. Just over 20 years later the pool of talented prospective teachers is drying up because of higher salaries and increased opportunities for women and minorities in other professions.
The good news is that there are some signs of change. No Child Left Behind requires more highly qualified teachers. Educators and a host of writers and scholars are calling for a transformed teaching profession: one with demanding entrance requirements and rigorous graduate degrees, in which knowledge of subject becomes the highest priority, and which offers a staged career, performance pay, autonomy, and accountability.
A transformed profession would make teachers partners in the reform movement sweeping America, instead of passive recipients of edicts from on high. A transformed profession would permit education schools to compete for talented students and appeal to idealistic, ambitious young people who see teaching as a worthy and important calling. In a transformed profession, parents would not only want a qualified teacher in every classroom–they would also want their child to become that teacher.
–Peter Gibbon is the author of A Call to Heroism: Renewing America’s Vision of Greatness. He is a Senior Research Fellow at Boston University’s School of Education.