School Reforms Doing More Harm Than Good?

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Ronald Reagan loved to quip: The most terrifying phrase in the English language is: “I’m from the government: I’m here to help.”

Well, here’s a companion horror movie phrase: “I’m from the federal government. I’m gonna fix your schools.”

The unintended consequences of the seemingly admirable federal education reforms in the No Child Left Behind act offer a disheartening case in point.

Almost a decade ago, Congress with a bipartisan rush of enthusiasm approved President George Bush’s sweeping reform measure, intended to hold schools accountable for ensuring every student masters the basic skills they need to thrive.

The act called on states to establish a comprehensive testing system and provided billions to help districts give those students the help they needed to catch up. Then to ensure districts took the reforms seriously, the act allowed the federal government to take over failing schools, fire all the teachers and administrators and install a turnaround team — with a vastly increased budget.

Sounds good in practice: How did it work out?

The guidelines resulted in a huge increase in federal control over local schools. The rules allowed for modest gains in the early years, but now require a 10 percent annual increase in the passage rate on the AIMS test leading to a 100 percent passage rate by 2014.

Payson Center for Success started flunking out a couple of years ago, mostly because the very difficulties that prompted students to seek that alternative setting usually ensures that they can’t graduate in the standard four years.

This year, Rim Country Middle School also wound up on the federal detention list after students failed to make “adequate yearly progress” on math tests. Nationally, the number of schools on the watch list jumped 40 percent in one year. By 2014, every school in the district could wind up on the list, thanks to the absurd notion that every single student can pass the AIMS test — including special education students and those struggling to learn English.

But that’s how it goes when bureaucrats in Washington dictate curriculum and priorities in every school district in the country. Sounds good on paper — does more harm than good in practice.

Certainly, Payson’s Response to Intervention Program has demonstrated the value of spotting problems early and giving students extra help. But we suspect a good classroom teacher can identify struggling students in the first month of school, without some unwieldy national system of testing. It makes sense for the federal government to help provide the extra tutoring and attention those kids need. It doesn’t make any sense at all for a distant federal government to take over local schools.

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