Is American Education Backing the Wrong Horse? (Yes)


The claims

The movement for national standards and tests is based on these claims: (1)  Our educational system is broken, as revealed by US students’ scores on international tests; (2) We must improve education to improve the economy; (3) The way to improve education is to have national standards and national tests that enforce the standards, and rate teachers on the basis of student performance (value-added measures). Each of these claims is unfounded.

Not true

(1) Our schools are not broken. The problem is poverty. Test scores of American students from middle-class homes who attend well-funded schools are among the best in world. Our mediocre overall scores are due to the fact that the US has the highest level of child poverty among all industrialized countries (now over 21%, compared to high-scoring Finland’s 4%). Poverty means poor nutrition, inadequate health care, and lack of access to books, among other things. All of these negatively impact school performance.

(2) Existing evidence strongly suggests that improving the economy improves children’s educational outcomes. Yes, a better education can lead to a better job, but only if jobs exist.

(3) There is no evidence that national standards and national tests have improved student learning in the past and there is no clear evidence that using value-added measures based on standardized test scores to rate teachers is valid, despite reports in the media.  Teachers’ ratings based on previous years are weak predictors of test scores at the end of a year with new students. A teacher who succeeds in boosting scores with one group will not necessarily succeed with others. Also, different tests result in different value-added scores for the same teacher. In addition, there are ways of pumping up test scores without student learning, including teaching test-taking strategies and making sure weak students don’t take the test.

The astonishing amount of testing planned and what it will cost

No educator is opposed to assessments that help students improve. The amount of testing proposed by the US Department of Education in connection to national standard is far more than the already excessive amount demanded by NCLB, and will not help learning. The Department of Education is urging testing in more subjects, in earlier and later grades, including interim testing, and doing value-added testing (which means testing in the fall as well as spring). This could mean a 20-fold increase in testing over what we have now.

In addition, the cost of implementing standards and electronically delivered national tests will be enormous, bleeding money from legitimate and valuable school activities. New York City is budgeting a half a billion dollars just to connect children to the internet, primarily so that they can take the national tests. This extrapolates to about $25 billion nationally, about 5% of current annual k-12 total expenditures. And we can be sure that the computer companies will require us to upgrade every few years and maybe even start all over again: Remember ethernet?

A solution

This money we will spend on unnecessary testing should be spent to protect children from the effects of poverty, i.e. on expanded and improved breakfast and lunch programs, school nurses (at present there are more school nurses per child in low poverty schools than in high poverty schools) and improved school and public libraries, especially in high-poverty areas. Making these kinds of investments would raise test scores, and, more important, it is the right thing to do.

Some sources:

“Test scores of students from middle class homes …: Payne, K. and Biddle, B. 1999. Poor school funding, child poverty, and mathematics achievement. Educational Researcher 28 (6): 4-13; Bracey, G. 2009. The Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Berliner, D. The Context for Interpreting PISA Results in the USA: Negativism, Chauvinism, Misunderstanding, and the Potential to Distort the Educational Systems of Nations. In Pereyra, M., Kottoff, H-G., & Cowan, R. (Eds.). PISA under examination: Changing knowledge, changing tests, and changing schools. Amsterdam: Sense Publishers. In press.

Levels of child poverty.

“Poverty means poor nutrition, inadequate health care, and lack of access to books”: Berliner, D. 2009. Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit; Krashen, S.
1997. Bridging inequity with books. Educational Leadership 55(4): 18-22.

Improving the economy ….: Baker, K. 2007. Are international tests worth anything? Phi Delta Kappan, 89(2), 101-104; Zhao, Y. 2009. Catching Up or Leading the Way? American Education in the Age of Globalization. ASCD: Alexandria, VA.; Ananat, E., Gassman-Pines, A., Francis, D., and Gibson-Davis, C. 2011. Children left behind: The effects of statewide job less on student acbievement. NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research) Working Paper No. 17104, JEL No. 12,16.

There is no evidence that national standards and national tests have improved student learning in the past: Nichols, S., Glass, G., and Berliner, D. 2006. High-stakes testing and student achievement: Does accountability increase student learning? Education Policy Archives 14(1). OECD

Value added measures:
Not stable: Sass, T. 2008. The stability of value-added measures of teacher quality and implications for teacher compensation policy. Washington DC: CALDER. (National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Educational Research.) Kane, T. and Staiger, D. 2009. Estimating Teacher Impacts on Student Achievement: An Experimental Evaluation. NBER Working Paper No. 14607; Different tests result in different value-added scores: Papay, J. 2010. Different tests, different answers: The stability of teacher value-added estimates across outcome measures. American Educational Research Journal 47,2.

Amount of testing:
Testing in more subjects: The Blueprint A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. United States Department of Education March 2010 In earlier and later grades: PARCC document

Interim tests: Duncan, A. September 9, 2010. Beyond the Bubble Tests: The Next Generation of Assessments — Secretary Arne Duncan’s Remarks to State Leaders at Achieve’s American Diploma Project Leadership Team Meeting: The Blueprint, (op. cit.) p. 11.

Value-added testing: (August 25, 2010). The Blueprint (op.cit.), p. 9.

New York City budget: New York Times, “In city schools, tech spending to rise despite cuts,” March 30, 2011. K-12 expenditures.

School nurses: Berliner, 2009 (op. cit.)
Libraries: Krashen, S. 2011. Protecting students against the effects of poverty: Libraries. New England Reading Association Journal 46 (2): 17-21. Available at

3 thoughts on “Is American Education Backing the Wrong Horse? (Yes)”

  1. No more carelessly wasted Creative Minds as a result of the 1%’s merciless assault on America’s Public Schools! I Lived it. I Witnessed the slide as a substitute Teacher over seventeen years from 1986 – 2003. I bore witness to a sickening teaching Environment. The 1%’s do not want Free, Enriching Public Education! They see Our Children as cattle-like to be herded and abused and bred into an economic slavery! Where the hell are ART, MUSIC, Physical Education, Field Trips, Language Studies, and Geography that were offered back in the time of the 50’s, when I attended Public School. Such Enriched Education is NOW only available to the wealthy. The Glory Days of a “Fun”- Education were brief:The two-decades between the end of WWII and the JFK-assassination. Neo-con sleaze then perpetrated its scam and began “a chipping-away and a power-grabbing of Our Commons”. The last 50 years has been a non-stop Attack on Unions, Free Public Education, The Free Press and Public-owned Airwaves, Wild Water Environments and Our Clean Air. Privatizing Our Commons means ownership by the very few persons that want to end All Inheritance Tax. People, Wake-up! It Sucks! It stinks. These greed-heads want this criminal enterprise to extend into their future inheritors. While Our Children of the99% are force-fed memorization stuff to advance privatization and authoritarianism! GAG PUKE! Discipline through fear! Propaganda, manipulation and forced competition! Yikes. Puke. AHGHH! Their corporate, private-for- profit “Public” Education system is an unmitigated scam. It’s tantamount to incarceration of the Minds of our Children! A perpetual class divide is in the making! Do We 99%ers want private rote education or Publicly-Owned, Socially Responsible, Fun Education? What is Life All About Anyway?

    Imagine OUR PUBLIC SCHOOLS as extensions of We-the-People. Schools will be built by the Student and the Student’s Teachers with support of the Community of the Arts and Trades! Students will learn Solar Efficiencies! They will be encouraged to try the Arts, Track and Field, Music and more! They will learn about Our Living Biomes and Organic Food. Outdoor School Gardens and/or Indoor Greenhouses will be at every school! The Students will have their own Art Studios and Galleries on campus. The School Auditorium will double as Concert Halls with Rockin’ Venues! Ethnic Studies and Real-Time Civics Experiences will engage them with Our Commons! – Like a Field Trip to D.C., a tour of a Solar Thermal Power Plant or a Camp-out Jamboree. They will learn to think Objectively and Critically. All Faiths, Races and Sexual Orientations are welcome as equals. Fun is the key, Folks!! We will send Our Cherished Children to other countries as a co-operative, International Student Exchange! Languages other than English will be encouraged. Studies abroad will offer travel by New, Green non-polluting Ground, Air or Sea propulsion! The latest in Virtual Technologies: Computers, Social-Networking Communication, Video-conferencing and instant Chat will proliferate. Out-of-doors Activity like Hiking, Swimming, Dancing and Camping [around the campfire] will insure a Good Time For All!


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