Assessment, Equity, Policy, Promising Practices

Restoring Our Schools: The Quest for Equity in the United States

In 1989 President George H.W. Bush and the nation’s governors convened to establish a set of six national education goals to be accomplished by the year 2000. Among these were to ensure that at least 90 percent of students graduate from high school, that all students are competent in the academic disciplines, and that the U.S. ranks “first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.”

These goals were not achieved. In 2011, the four-year high school graduation rate remains stagnant at about 70 percent; the achievement gap between minority and White students in reading and math is larger than it was in 1988; and U.S. performance on international tests has continued to drop.

Far from being first in the world in math and science, the U.S. ranked 31st out of the top 40 jurisdictions in mathematics on the 2009 Programme in International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, with scores well below the OECD average, and lower than in 2000, when the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was introduced. The U.S. ranking was 22nd in science, sandwiched between Hungary and the Czech Republic. Reading scores were closer to international averages, with the U.S ranked 15th – equivalent to Poland and Iceland – but average scores also dropped during the NCLB era. By contrast, Canada is the highest performing English-language speaking country in the PISA assessments, with a current ranking of 6th in reading, 8th in science and 10th in mathematics.

The dismal performance of the U.S. can be explained partly by the fact that international assessments demand more advanced analysis than do most U.S. tests, requiring students to weigh and balance evidence, apply what they know to new problems, and explain and defend their answers. These higher-order skills are emphasized in other nations’ curricula and assessment systems but have been discouraged by the lower-level, multiple-choice testing favored by NCLB.

In addition, inequality has an enormous influence on U.S. performance; the U.S. is among the nations where socio-economic background most affects student outcomes. In the U.S., the impact of socio-economic factors on student performance is almost double what it is in Canada.[1] In the U.S., White and Asian students score just above the average for the European OECD nations in each subject area, but African-American and Hispanic students – many of whom are in highly segregated schools that lack qualified teachers and up-to-date materials – score so much lower that the national average plummets to the bottom tier. Thus, the poor U.S. standing is substantially a product of unequal access to the kind of intellectually challenging learning measured on these international assessments.

Barack Obama has described our large race- and class-based achievement gaps as “morally unacceptable and economically untenable.” At a time when three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require post-secondary education, our college participation rates have slipped from first in the world to 17th. Only about 40 percent of American young people—and fewer than 20 percent of African-American and Hispanic youth—receive a college or university degree, as compared to almost half of students in Canada.

While government commitment to education has dropped, the number of prisoners has quadrupled since 1980; state budgets for corrections have grown by more than 900 percent, three times faster than funds for education. States that would not spend $10,000 a year to ensure adequate education for children in under-resourced schools later spend more than $40,000 a year to keep them in jail.

While we have been busy setting goals and targets for public schools and punishing the schools that fail to meet them, we have not pointed our schools at the critical higher-order thinking and performance skills needed in the 21st century.

Finally, unlike high-achieving nations, the U.S. has failed to invest in the critical components of a high-quality education system. While we have been busy setting goals and targets for public schools and punishing the schools that fail to meet them, we have not invested in a highly trained, well-supported teaching force for all communities, and we have not pointed our schools at the critical higher-order thinking and performance skills needed in the 21st century. We have not, as a nation, undertaken the systemic reforms needed to maintain the standing we held 40 years ago as the world’s unquestioned educational leader.

A Glimpse of What High-Achieving Nations Are Doing

Other nations are expanding educational access to more and more of their people and revising curricula, instruction, and assessments to support the more complex knowledge and skills needed in the 21st century. Starting in the 1980s, for example, Finland dismantled its rigid tracking system and eliminated the state-mandated testing system used to support it, replacing them with highly trained teachers educated in newly overhauled schools of education, along with curricula and assessments focused on problem solving, creativity, and independent learning. These changes have propelled achievement to the top of the international rankings and closed what was once a large achievement gap.

In the space of one generation, South Korea has transformed itself from a nation that educated less than a quarter of its citizens through high school to one that graduates more than 95 percent from high school and ranks third in college-educated adults, with most young people now completing post-secondary education. Egalitarian access to schools and a common curriculum, coupled with investments in well-prepared teachers, have been part of the national strategy there as well.

Similarly, starting in the 1970s, Singapore began to transform itself from a collection of fishing villages into an economic powerhouse by building an education system that would assure every student access to strong teaching, an inquiry curriculum, and cutting-edge technology. In 2003, Singapore’s fourth and eighth grade students scored first in the world in math and science on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) assessments.

A visit to Nan Chiau Primary School, for example, finds fourth and fifth graders eagerly displaying the science projects they have designed and conducted in an “experience, investigate, and create” cycle that is repeated throughout the year. Students are delighted to show visitors their “innovation walk,” displaying student-developed projects from many subject areas lining a long corridor. Students study plants, animals, and insects in the school’s eco-garden; they run their own recycling center; they write and edit scripts for the Internet radio program they produce; and they use handheld computers to play games and create mathematical models that develop their quantitative abilities. Teachers, meanwhile, engage in research sponsored by the government to evaluate and continually improve their teaching.

Certainly there are schools that look like this in the U.S. But what distinguishes systems like Singapore’s is that this quality of education is replicated throughout the entire nation. And Singapore is not alone. As many nations in Asia and Europe, as well as Canada, are pouring resources into forward-looking systems that educate all their citizens to much higher levels, the gap between the U.S. and these nations is growing.

Contrast the picture of a typical school in Singapore with the description of a California school, from a lawsuit filed recently on behalf of low-income students of colour in schools like it throughout the state, a half-century after Brown v. Board of Education:

At Luther Burbank, students cannot take textbooks home for homework in any core subject because their teachers have enough textbooks for use in class only… One dead rodent has remained, decomposing, in a corner in the gymnasium since the beginning of the school year…. The school library is rarely open, has no librarian…the latest version of the encyclopedia in the library was published in approximately 1988…. Luther Burbank classrooms do not have computers. Computer instruction and research skills are not, therefore, part of Luther Burbank students’ regular instruction…. The school no longer offers any art classes…. Eleven of the 35 teachers at Luther Burbank have not yet obtained full, non-emergency teaching credentials, and 17 of the 35 teachers only began teaching at Luther Burbank this school year.

Under these circumstances, it is impossible to talk about developing the deep knowledge and complex skills required of young people in today’s and tomorrow’s society. PISA data indicates that the U.S., along with Turkey, Slovenia, and Israel, are unique within OECD for the fact that schools with high proportions of socio-economically disadvantaged students also tend to be disadvantaged in terms of inadequacy of basic resources. In Canada, the majority of students attend “mixed” schools, rather than highly advantaged or disadvantaged, and there is greater equity of access to resources within and across schools. One outcome is that the average public school in Canada has been judged to perform at least at an equivalent level to an average private school in the U.S.[2] 

Learning From the Past

These deep-seated problems in the U.S. education system are not inevitable. The nation made strong headway on educational achievement in the past and could do so again. For a brief period in the mid-70s, Black and Hispanic students were attending college at rates comparable with Whites, the only time this has happened before or since. By the mid-1970s, urban schools were spending as much as suburban schools, and paying their teachers as well; perennial teacher shortages had nearly ended; and gaps in educational attainment had closed substantially. Federally funded curriculum investments transformed teaching in many schools. Innovative schools flourished, especially in the cities. Large gains in Black students’ performance throughout the 1970s and early 1980s cut the literacy achievement gap by nearly half in just 15 years. Had this rate of progress continued, the racial achievement gap would have been closed by the year 2000.

Unfortunately, that did not occur. While other nations built on the progressive reforms they launched in the 1970s, the U.S. backpedaled in the Reagan years. Conservatives introduced a new theory of reform focused on outcomes rather than inputs – that is, high-stakes testing without investing. Drops in real per-pupil expenditures accompanied tax cuts and growing enrollments, while student needs grew with immigration, concentrated poverty and homelessness, and growing numbers of students requiring second-language instruction and special education services. Although some federal support to high-need schools and districts was restored during the 1990s, it was not enough, and after 2000 inequality increased once again, and it has now grown to epic proportions with budget cuts hitting poor schools the hardest. 

What’s to Be Done?

Although some of America’s schools are among the best in the world, too many have been neglected in the more than 20 years since the clarion call for school reform was sounded in the 1980s. Clearly, we need to take the education of poor children as seriously as we take the education of the rich, and we need to create systems that routinely guarantee all the elements of educational investment to all children.

Clearly, we need to take the education of poor children as seriously as we take the education of the rich, and we need to create systems that routinely guarantee all the elements of educational investment to all children.

What would this require? As in high- and equitably-achieving nations, it would require strong investments in children’s welfare – adequate healthcare, housing and food security, so that children can come to school each day ready to learn; high-quality preschool to close achievement gaps that already exist when children enter kindergarten; equitably funded schools that provide quality educators and learning materials, which are the central resources for learning; a system that ensures that teachers and leaders in every community are extremely well prepared and are supported to be effective on the job; standards, curricula, and assessments focused on 21st century learning goals; and schools organized for in-depth student and teacher learning and equipped to address children’s social needs, as the community schools movement has done.[3]

Thus far, the Obama administration has taken affirmative steps on a portion of this agenda. The administration’s stimulus package, which made $100 billion available for schools, has stanched some of the acute hemorrhaging that would otherwise have occurred as a result of the recession. And the president has signaled his interest in more intellectually thoughtful assessments that “don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity.”

The most touted aspects of the Race to the Top initiative, however, focus on peripheral issues rather than investments that have characterized major improvements in education systems at home and abroad. It continues to sanction schools based on test-score targets and close those that serve the neediest students; it does not require states to equalize funding; it requires states to expand charters but fails to assure quality and ensure access, despite evidence that charter schools frequently underperform their counterparts, exacerbate segregation, and serve fewer students with special needs. The law does not aim to spread excellence so much as it aims to change governance. Nations that are focused on spreading quality – like Singapore, Finland, and Canada, for example – have developed strategies for schools to share successful practices through networks, creating an engine for ongoing improvement for the system as a whole.

Rather than establishing a framework for dramatically improving the knowledge, skills, and equitable distribution of teachers, as high-achieving nations have done, Race to the Top encourages states to expand alternative routes to certification and to reduce coursework for prospective teachers, and it fails to make the critical investments needed to prepare and distribute excellent teachers and school leaders. Rather than short-term incentives, competition, sanctions, and quick fixes, federal policy should focus on building capacity across the entire system.

Achieving these conditions will require as much federal attention to opportunity-to-learn standards as to assessments of academic progress, and greater equalization of federal funding across states. It will require incentives for states to provide comparable funding to students, adjusted for pupil needs and costs of living, as well as incentives and information that can steer spending productively to maximize the likelihood of student success. Finally, an equitable and adequate system will need to address the supply of well-prepared educators – the most fundamental of all resources – by building an infrastructure that ensures high-quality preparation for all educators and ensures that well-trained teachers are available to all students in all communities.

This article is adapted from Linda Darling-Hammond’s The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future (Teachers College Press). Source URL: http://www.thenation.com/article/restoring-our-schools

A version of this article was previously published on The Nation (http://www.thenation.com) on May 27, 2010.

EN BREF – Le piètre classement des États-Unis aux tests internationaux résulte d’un accès inégal au type d’apprentissage intellectuellement stimulant qui est évalué. Alors que d’autres pays ont beaucoup élargi l’accès à l’éducation et revu les programmes d’études, la pédagogie et les évaluations en fonction de connaissances et de compétences plus complexes, les États-Unis ont privilégié les examens normalisés. Bien que certaines écoles américaines comptent parmi les meilleures du monde, les États-Unis doivent instaurer des systèmes garantissant tous les éléments d’investissement éducationnel à tous les enfants. Comme l’ont fait les pays caractérisés par des résultats élevés et par l’équité, il faudrait privilégier le bien-être des enfants; une éducation préscolaire de qualité; le financement équitable des écoles; un système assurant une préparation et un soutien adéquats du personnel enseignant et des dirigeants de chaque collectivité; des normes, des curriculums et des évaluations tenant compte d’objectifs d’apprentissage du 21e siècle; des écoles organisées pour permettre l’apprentissage approfondi des élèves et du personnel enseignant et dotées de ressources appropriées en fonction des besoins sociaux des élèves.

[1] 8.6% of variance in student performance in Canada is associated with socio-economic factors, as compared to 16.8% in the United States.  OECD, PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background: Equity in Learning Opportunities and Outcomes. Volume II (Paris: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2010).

[2] J. D. Willms, Reading Achievement in Canada and the United States: Findings from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (Report prepared for Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, 2004).

[3] See David L. Kirp, “Cradle to College,” The Nation, 14 June 2010: 26.

Meet the Expert(s)

Linda Darling-Hammond

Linda Darling-Hammond is Charles E. Ducommun Professor at Stanford University's School of Education, where she co-directs the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and works on issues of teacher quality, school reform, and educational equity.

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