Positive Outcomes from Three Decades of Economic-driven School Reforms
- Hastened shift from defining school effectiveness as the level of resources that go into schooling children and youth to an exclusive concentration on outcomes.
Since the late-19th century, policymakers judged the quality of schools and their effectiveness by how much money was spent per-student, the credentials teachers possessed, the worth of buildings, and instructional resources given to teachers and students—what economists called “inputs.”
The use of student test scores to assess school effectiveness and student learning began in the mid-1960s when the U.S. Congress mandated that scores from standardized tests be used to evaluate the success of Title I programs targeting low-income schools in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. By the end of the 1970s, urban school reformers had begun to compare and contrast those high-scoring urban elementary schools enrolling largely poor and minority children with schools in neighborhoods with similar enrollments that were low-performers. Ronald Edmonds and others noted the factors that were associated with high performing schools and throughout the 1980s, Effective Schools programs spread slowly across urban districts.
With the publication of Nation at Risk in 1983 and frequent media attention to where U.S. students ranked on international tests, active reform coalitions lobbied federal, state, and local officials to overhaul and restructure failing U.S. schools. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, initiated programs throughout the 1990s that used test scores and other outcome measures such as drop-out rates, percentages of students graduating high school, and numbers of graduates attending college to determine program effectiveness. Many states required tests and public reporting of student outcomes in attendance, dropouts, and high school graduates. With the passage of No Child Left Behind (2002), the federal government mandated states to use test scores and other outcomes to determine whether schools were succeeding or failing. Those that were failing had to be improved or closed.
By 2010, the entire vocabulary of effective schooling had shifted nearly 180 degrees from “inputs” to “outputs.” If an “input” like per-pupil expenditure is used, more often than not, it highlights discrepancies between high-expenditure districts with mostly low-income students doing less well in test scores than similar districts spending fewer dollars but harvesting higher test scores. How much money is spent on schools—the criterion of effective schools used for nearly a century—has been replaced by ranking schools on the basis of test scores.
I do consider the three-decade focus on student outcomes as an overall plus since it directed public attention to those in-school factors that can be solidly linked to changes in student performance, albeit on the constricted measure of test scores. How schools are governed and organized, what knowledge and skills students are expected to learn, whether teachers work alone or collaborate, how teachers teach and students learn—all become factors that can be (and should be) connected to student outcomes.
So the past three decades have hastened movement toward a focus on student outcomes that had been underway since the late-1960s and now has coalesced into an unvarnished—and here is my criticism—exclusive concentration on test scores supplemented occasionally by other student outcomes.
2. Accelerated tapping of non-traditional pools for new teachers and administrators.
With the growth of teacher education in colleges and universities throughout the 20th century, a single path to becoming a teacher certified to teach elementary and secondary school and credentialed as an administrator emerged. Becoming a teacher required a bachelor’s degree with a major in a subject area that included state-required courses and a minimum amount of time in schools working as an apprentice teacher. Similar state requirements for principals and superintendents led to university certification for administrators.
With the surge of school reform in the 1960s, teacher education institutions came under attack for monopolizing the market. Entrepreneurial educators seeking ways of improving urban schools and backed by federal and philanthropic funding looked to returning Peace Corps Volunteers, mid-career military, and women whose children are no longer in school as sources of new teachers. Most already had bachelors’ degrees so alternative paths to attaining certification grew throughout the 1970s.
With reform-driven coalitions in the 1980s and 1990s seeking to overhaul U.S. schools, teacher education programs came under increasing attack. More alternative paths to becoming a teacher, building on earlier programs, emerged such as Teach for America, The New Teacher project, and similar ventures elsewhere including ones for principals and superintendents. These alternative paths for recruiting, training, and placing novices in hard-to-fill posts in urban schools have significantly challenged conventional university-based teacher education programs and how new teachers (and administrators) enter schools.
3. Increased parental choice of public schools.
Charters, magnets, and portfolios of options in urban public schools have provided different visions of how schools can be in offering poor and minority parents choices for their children.
There were, of course, alternatives that offered different visions of schooling in the 1960s. In Arlington (VA) where I served as superintendent in the 1970s and early 1980s, parents could chose from progressive to traditional elementary and secondary schools, ones that still exist today. Ditto for many other districts. What the current expansion of parental choice has done is accelerate and extend choice into areas hitherto unexplored.
For example, whatever one thinks of KIPP schools, there is little doubt that such schools have provided both a vision and proof that minority and poor children can succeed—much as an earlier generation of “effective schools” did in the 1980s and 1990s. The same can be said of charters such as Aspire, Green Dot, Leadership Public Schools, and “blended learning” schools where mixes of online and regular classroom teaching appeal to parents.
While that expanded parental choice has yet to satisfy pent-up demands for more high-achieving schools in many cities and while the aim of creating competitive pressure on urban districts to copy such models has yet to lead to altered teaching practices or widespread duplication of such schools within districts, it is clear in 2012 that new structures of choice have, indeed, opened up options for low-income parents that simply had not existed earlier.
There have been costs, however. The idea of public charters and alternatives broadening the supply of schools to meet increasing demands from parents and the notion of customizing schools to appeal to parents, schools have been marketed in ways similar to other commodities that can be purchased, used, and dumped. Branding schools as consumer products mock the very point of having public schools to improve society and the individual.
In light of the costs involved for these positive outcomes, I would still judge their worth an overall plus. An “overall plus” acknowledges that exclusive focus on test scores has gone too far and too fast. Negatives appear in using student test scores to determine individual teacher effectiveness even when validity and reliability of such value-added measures are suspect. Negatives appear in the constant rhetoric of business and civic leaders eager to produce better graduates for the changing U.S. labor market turning teaching, learning, and schools into virtual commodities.
A better balance between inputs, processes, and outcomes has yet to be struck than now exists.