Standards Based Education Reform is Toxic

14 Feb

In 1983, lawyers, business titans and famous scientists ushered in the era of standards based reform with the infamous “A Nation at Risk.” This political polemic masquerading as a scholarly paper proclaimed a crisis in American education. It propelled us careening down a path of harm. Harm for children; harm for educators; harm for communities; harm for schools and harm for democracy.

During my first quarter at UCSD’s teacher education program, I was assigned many readings including Alfie Kohn’s The Schools Our Children Deserve. By 1999, the time of the books writing, Clinton’s Goals 2000 was in force and many states were already adopting high school exit exams and other standardized testing practices. Although not impressed by this theory of education improvement, Alfie was more focused on improving education practices in public schools.

He asked, “Is it possible that we are not really as well educated as we’d like to think? Might we have spent a good chunk of our childhoods doing stuff that was exactly as pointless as we suspected it was at the time?”

Kohn believes in progressive education and opposes behaviorism. He embraces the ideas of Dewey and Piaget; he is a constructivist. He railed against traditional classroom management, teacher centered instruction, homework and grading policies. One of his criticisms of education reform in 1999 was “The dominant philosophy of fixing schools consists of saying, in effect, that ‘what we’re doing is OK, we just need to do it harder, longer, stronger, louder, meaner, and we’ll have a better country.”

Less than five years latter Kohn would write:

“I just about fell off my desk chair the other day when I came across my own name in an essay by a conservative economist who specializes in educational issues. The reason for my astonishment is that I was described as being ‘dead set against any fundamental changes in the nation’s schools.’ Now having been accused with some regularity of arguing for too damn many fundamental changes in the nation’s schools, I found this new criticism more than a bit puzzling. But then I remembered that, during a TV interview a couple of years ago, another author from a different right-wing think tank had labeled me a ‘defender of the educational status quo.’”

Standards Based Education Reform is Based on Bad Theory

Professor Ellen Brantlin of Indiana University was an early critic of standards based education reform (SBR). Unlike the promoters of SBR, Brantlin was a scholar whose work was peer reviewed. In a 1997 paper published in Review of Education Research, she observed that ideology preserves “existing social structures and power relations” and that SBR was based on uncritical ideology that venerated the dominant culture and subjugated minority cultures.

In another article, “An Application of Gramsci’s ‘Who Benefits?’ to High-Stakes Testing”, Brantlin wrote:

“It seems reasonable to conclude that a number of parties reap rewards from high-stakes testing. Turning to Gramsci’s idea of hegemony (that powerful groups in society strive to maintain and strengthen their dominance by offering new evidence to justify it), it is plausible to assume that high-stakes tests facilitate the win/lose situations that justify hierarchical social relations and dominant groups’ material and status advantages.”

After the Common Core State Standards were released, Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute conducted a study to ascertain the expected benefit from the new standards. He concluded, “Despite all the money and effort devoted to developing the Common Core State Standards—not to mention the simmering controversy over their adoption in several states—the study foresees little to no impact on student learning.”

He came to this conclusion in part by looking at the effect on testing results due to varying quality in state standards on the National Education Performance Assessments (NEAP).

Loveless also noted:

“Education leaders often talk about standards as if they are a system of weights and measures—the word “benchmarks” is used promiscuously as a synonym for standards. But the term is misleading by inferring that there is a real, known standard of measurement. Standards in education are best understood as aspirational, and like a strict diet or prudent plan to save money for the future, they represent good intentions that are not often realized.”

Loveless countered one of the more loudly proclaimed reasons for national curriculum guided by national standards:

“In the U.S., advocates of a national curriculum have for years pointed to nations at the top of TIMSS and PISA rankings and argued that because those countries have national curriculums, a national curriculum must be good. The argument is without merit. What the advocates neglect to observe is that countries at the bottom of the international rankings also have a national curriculum.”

Mathew DiCarlo writing for the Shanker Blog cited the work of Eric Hanushek, Jonah Rockoff and others to note that family background constitutes more than half the cause for scholastic achievement. He reported:

“But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error).”

Professor Paul Thomas from Furman University shared his conclusion in an article published by Alternet “Corporations Are Behind the Common Core State Standards — And That’s Why They’ll Never Work.” He wrote,

“Noted earlier, the evidence from standards-based education has revealed that standards, testing, and accountability do not succeed in raising test scores. Related, the evidence on teaching shows that focusing on direct instruction and content acquisition is also ineffective. …. Additionally, we have ample evidence that standards and high-stakes tests do not create the democratic outcomes we seek in schools such as critical thinking, creativity, and equity of opportunity.”

Geometry Standards Posted

Teachers Are Forced to Post Standards and Teach to the Test – Photo by Ultican

Harming Students, Teachers, Schools and Communities

The real standards in a standards-based education system are the standards that get tested or as Center for Education Policy President and CEO Jack Jennings put it, “What gets tested gets taught.” A natural narrowing of curriculum occurs.

Professor Julian Vasquez Heilig of California State University Sacramento recently shared some corroboration of Jennings point on his blog “Cloaking Inequality.” In a piece he called “From Segregated, to Integrated, to Narrowed.” there is a documented account of a first-year chemistry teacher so focused on Texas testing that “The entire chemistry course was solely designed to drill students for science exit testing by utilizing multiple-choice worksheets.” The article included this outcome from Julian’s research:

“Vasquez Heilig (2011) studied majority-minority urban and rural schools in Texas and found that teachers (11 of 33) and principals (6 of 7) in his study detailed aspects of “teaching to the test” and the impact of exit testing on the narrowing of the curriculum. A high school administrator in the study acknowledged that schools are paying attention to constraints created by the current educational policy system: There’s no way around it, I mean you’d be a fool if you did not play that game, I guess you can call it … . You can easily end up being labeled unacceptable if you did not prepare the students to take the test … . Two weeks before the TAKS [Texas standardized tests] date we pull out the kids … . We let the teachers know you’re not going to see these kids for 4 days. For 4 days we do what we call the TAKS blitz.”

The National Research Council (NRC) is a part of the National Academies. It was founded in 1916 to study issues related to coordinating science and technology research for America’s possible involvement in World War I. The NRC conducted a nine-year study of the standards based education reforms mandated by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. Here are a few of its findings:

“Incentives will often lead people to find ways to increase measured performance that do not also improve the desired outcomes.”

“The evidence we have reviewed suggests that high school exit exam programs, as currently implemented in the United States, decrease the rate of high school graduation without increasing achievement.”

“To help explain why test-based incentives sometimes produce negative effects on achievement, researchers should collect data on changes in educational practice by the people who are affected by the incentives.”

Standards Based Education Reform Destroyed Schools in Poor and Minority Neighborhoods

In an article he called “Test Today, Privatize Tomorrow – Using Accountability to “Reform” Public Schools to Death” Alfie Kohn shared,

“As Lily Tomlin once remarked, ‘No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.’

“I try to imagine myself as a privatizer. How would I proceed? If my objective were to dismantle public schools, I would begin by trying to discredit them. I would probably refer to them as “government” schools, hoping to tap into a vein of libertarian resentment. I would never miss an opportunity to sneer at researchers and teacher educators as out-of-touch “educationists.” Recognizing that it’s politically unwise to attack teachers, I would do so obliquely, bashing the unions to which most of them belong. Most important, if I had the power, I would ratchet up the number and difficulty of standardized tests that students had to take, in order that I could then point to the predictably pitiful results. I would then defy my opponents to defend the schools that had produced students who did so poorly.”

Jessica Bacon an Education Professor from City University, New York and Professor Beth A. Ferri from the school of education Syracuse University studied the demise of Westvale, a K-5 urban elementary school in New York state. Their paper is called “The impact of standards-based reform: applying Brantlinger’s critique of ‘hierarchical ideologies’.”

It is a story that has repeated itself too often. Westvale served a population that does not test well. The demographics of the school: 95% free and reduced lunch, 40% limited English proficiency, and 20% students with disabilities. The racial makeup of the school was: 50% Hispanic or Latino, 35% Black or African-American, and 10% white.

Because Westvale elementary could not meet the testing targets set by the NCLB law, the state of New York categorized them as “Persistently Lowest Achieving” which meant the district had to select one of four remediation methods. The district chose the transformation model.

The paper reports, “Unfortunately, during this process, Westvale also ‘transformed’ from a school that had been moving towards a fully inclusive model, to one that reverted to a variety of segregated, tracked, and pullout classes.”

Today, many schools in communities that test poorly are being privatized as either charter schools or voucher schools.

In an Education Week article, “‘Defies Measurement’ Illustrates Failures of Test-Focused Policy,” David B. Cohen writes,

“In ‘Defies Measurement,’ teacher-turned-filmmaker Shannon Puckett gathers the recollections and reflections of twenty-three former students, parents, and teachers from Chipman Middle School in Alameda, California, and illustrates how a nurturing school community was gradually dismantled by the test-and-punish dynamics of education reform under No Child Left Behind. Puckett, who taught at Chipman and quit because of the changes following from NCLB, also contextualizes the eventual closure of the school, and the devaluation of what it stood for, in the broader context of education reform and accountability efforts nationwide.”

A school in which I had worked was closed because of the NCLB law. I wrote of about the “Unwarranted Demise of Mar Vista Middle School.” The piece began:

“In February, while attending a science teacher’s professional development at Mar Vista High School, I first heard the rumor that Mar Vista Middle School (MVM) was going to be closed, all of its staff dismissed and the school reopened as a charter school. Since 1961, this venerable institution has been a treasure in the poverty-stricken neighborhood situated one mile north of the world’s busiest border crossing (San Diego-Tijuana). At the March 11, 2013 board meeting (Sweetwater Union High School District) the rumor was confirmed, a restructuring plan for MVM was approved. Or as one person observed, ‘they legally stole an asset belonging to a poor community for their own purposes.’”

It turned out that the community successfully fought off the charter school conversion. The remedy became close the school and reopen it as a focus or theme school with a transformed staff. Fifty percent of the original staff was sent packing. The school is not much changed today because it is still serving the same community, but it is now called Mar Vista Academy and many lives were disrupted.

Some Last Words

Last September, the Labour Party in New Zealand captured control of the government. The news service Stuff reported, “Labour campaigned hard on scrapping National Standards in the lead-up to the September election on the basis they were neither ‘national or standard’.” Labour has rid the country of standards based education reform.

Last week brought a new initiative from the Labour government to rid the country of charter schools. Stuff quotes Education Minister Chris Hipkins,

“Both National Standards and charter schools were driven by ideology rather than evidence. Both were rejected by the vast majority of the education sector. The Government’s strong view is that there is no place for them in the New Zealand education system.”

There are twin lies supporting standards based education reform and the destruction of public education in the United States. The first lie promotes the illusion that public education in this country is failing. It never was failing nor is it failing now. The second lie is driven by market based ideology. It posits that privately-run charter schools are superior to “government schools.” A group of researchers in Massachusetts studied the results after 20 years of the 1993 state education law enactment. They reported:

“While some charter high schools with a large percentage of low-income students score high on MCAS [Massachusetts standardized tests], these schools rank much lower on the SATs. What’s more, research indicates many students from high-scoring charter schools do not fare well in college, as measured by six-year college completion rates.”

Hopefully, a political party in the United States will also realize that protecting public education is good politics. I don’t care what letter they use after their name – D, G, I or R – they will have my vote.

7 Responses to “Standards Based Education Reform is Toxic”

  1. teachingeconomist February 18, 2018 at 2:33 pm #

    It has often struck me that the view that teachers have little impact on student achievement is at odds with the view that teachers must be highly trained and experienced. If student achievement is largely a function of their home life, wouldn’t funds currently devoted to paying teachers to get post graduate degrees be better spent educating parents about effective ways they can increase student achievement?

    • tultican February 18, 2018 at 3:25 pm #

      Wouldn’t the same logic say dentist training money would be better spent on hygiene training after all it has a bigger effect on oral health?

      • teachingeconomist February 18, 2018 at 3:37 pm #

        Yes, if it is true that dentists were largely ineffective in having an impact on oral health. Do you think that is the case?

      • tultican February 18, 2018 at 4:35 pm #

        I agree with you that there are places to spend our tax dollars that would have a larger effect on education outcomes than incentivizing advanced degrees for educators. Making government the employer of last resort and giving parents a job would do more than any parent of teacher training programs to improve school outcomes. Poverty is the biggest problem facing educators in their classrooms.

      • teachingeconomist February 18, 2018 at 5:43 pm #

        I think it has to be more than just poverty. The poverty rate of children under the age of 18 was much higher (averaging over 42%) between 1966 and 1976 than it has been in the last 10 years where it averaged a bit over 34%. Was poverty an even bigger problem in the 60’s and 70s?

        Data from

  2. Ronald Lewis February 20, 2018 at 12:02 am #

    This is addressed to ‘Teachingeconomist’ February 18, 2018 at 5:43 pm.
    I believe that there is more to it than poverty as such; even so I do hold with much of what the post says. Poverty does play a part but there are people who are not really poor and do not encourage their children to dedicate themselves to the work necessary for school success.
    Parenting is not an easy endeavor and many parents below a certain income (but not poor) may not be in touch with the best parenting styles. I have never in more than forty years seen a student who did the work, consistently, and yet fail to do reasonably well in school. Ms. Chua in her book ‘Battle Hymn…’ advocates hard work. Ms. Ravitch in her document ‘Hard Work and High Expectations,’ says consistent hard work on the part of all our students is required. Ben Sasse, in his book ‘The Vanishing American Adult,’ perhaps in different terms suggest that our children need to be taught the value of work.
    It is demanding work, raising kids, and a number of parents are not doing their jobs; that I know personally. They leave things to the teachers, unlike the Ms. Chua type. Some parents don’t seem to realize they signed up for major sacrifices in order to get the child through school. They will have to spend time with the child while he or she learns, checking on mundane things like grades, and moving quickly to address any problems.

    The teacher cannot replace the parent, and a child born in certain homes will be the recipient of a stimulating environment. Still the child needs an expanded world, and the teacher is one of the first persons outside the family who will have influence on the child’s mind and character. The child might find a certain teacher brilliant, another humorous or maybe diligent, and so the young person gets to be influenced by a varying number of people, all the while unconsciously deciding which, he or she, wishes to emulate. Some teachers may push the child’s minds to its very boundaries sending them on well prepared and with an expanded mind. So yes, well trained teachers are indeed an absolute necessity; and no, they are neither saints nor magicians.

    • teachingeconomist February 20, 2018 at 7:07 pm #


      My post was in response to the statement that 10%-15% of the effects on achievement are from variations in the quality of teaching. If all the poor teachers are the teachers with only a BA and all the best teachers are ones with doctorates, the practice of paying more for teachers with more credit hours toward advanced degrees might be warranted. Do you think that having advanced degrees greatly enhances teacher quality?

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