Restoring Our Schools
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).
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 all students enter school healthy and ready to learn, that at least 90 percent of students graduate from high school, that all students are competent in the academic disciplines and that the United States ranks "first in the world in mathematics and science achievement."
In 2010 none of these goals have been accomplished, and we are further away from achieving most of them than we were two decades ago. More children live in poverty and lack healthcare; the high school graduation rate has slipped below 70 percent; the achievement gap between minority and white students in reading and math is larger than it was in 1988; and US performance on international tests has continued to drop.
Far from being first in the world in math and science, the United States ranked thirty-fifth out of the top forty countries in math—right between Azerbaijan and Croatia—when the most recent Programme in International Student Assessment tests were given in 2006. In science, the United States ranked twenty-ninth out of forty, sandwiched between Latvia and Lithuania. These rankings and scores had dropped from 2000, when the No Child Left Behind Act was introduced. While the United States performs closer to international averages in reading, its scores also dropped on the international reading tests during the NCLB era.
Declines on international tests and a flattening of growth on the National Assessment of Educational Progress occurred even as state test scores used for NCLB were driven upward. This is partly because the international assessments demand more advanced analysis than do most US tests. They require 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' curriculums and assessment systems but have been discouraged by the kind of lower-level multiple-choice testing favored by NCLB.
In addition, inequality has an enormous influence on US performance. White and Asian students score just above the average for the European OECD nations in each subject area, but African-American and Hispanic students score so much lower that the national average plummets to the bottom tier. The United States is also among the nations where socioeconomic background most affects student outcomes. This is because of greater income inequality and because the United States spends much more educating affluent children than poor children, with wealthy suburbs often spending twice what central cities do, and three times what poor rural areas can afford.
Both segregation of schools and inequality in funding have increased in many states over the past two decades, leaving a growing share of African-American and Hispanic students in highly segregated apartheid schools that lack qualified teachers; up-to-date textbooks and materials; libraries, science labs and computers; and safe, adequate facilities. Thus, the poor US standing is substantially a product of unequal access to the kind of intellectually challenging learning measured on these international assessments.
During his historic campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama 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 postsecondary education, our college participation rates have slipped from first in the world to seventeenth. While more than half of young people are becoming college graduates in many European and Asian nations, fewer than 40 percent of American young people—and fewer than 20 percent of African-American and Hispanic youth—receive a college degree.
In minority communities, a greater number join the growing ranks of inmates in what the New York Times recently dubbed our "prison nation," which incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. With 5 percent of the world's population, we have 25 percent of the world's inmates, at a cost of untold human tragedy and more than $50 billion annually to taxpayers. In an economy that requires knowledge and skills for employment and success, most inmates are high school dropouts and functionally illiterate—with literacy skills below those demanded by the labor market. States that would not spend $10,000 a year to ensure adequate education for children of color in under-resourced schools later spend more than $30,000 a year to keep them in jail.
Since the 1980s, national investments have tipped heavily toward incarceration rather than education. As 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. With prisons and education competing for limited funds, the strong relationship between under-education, unemployment and incarceration creates a vicious cycle. Today, at least five states spend more on corrections than they spend on public colleges and universities, and some, like California, are decreasing slots in their higher education systems, as other nations are aggressively increasing theirs.
Also unlike high-achieving nations, we have 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, as other nations have; we have not scaled up successful school designs so that they are sustained and widely available; and we have not pointed our schools at the critical higher-order thinking and performance skills needed in the twenty-first century. Some states are notable exceptions, but we have not, as a nation, undertaken the systemic reforms needed to maintain the standing we held forty years ago as the world's unquestioned educational leader.
A Glimpse of What High-Achieving Nations Are Doing
Other nations have been transforming their school systems to meet the new demands of today's world. They are expanding educational access to more and more of their people, and they are revising curriculums, instruction and assessments to support the more complex knowledge and skills needed in the twenty-first century. Starting in the 1980s, for example, Finland dismantled the rigid tracking system that had allocated differential access to knowledge to its young people and eliminated the state-mandated testing system that was used for this purpose, replacing them with highly trained teachers educated in newly overhauled schools of education, along with curriculums 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, intractable 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 postsecondary 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 assessments. When children leave their tiny, spare apartments in high-rises throughout the nation, they arrive at beautiful, airy school buildings where student artwork, papers, projects and awards are displayed throughout; libraries and classrooms are well stocked; instructional technology is plentiful; and teachers are well trained and well supported.
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 United States. But they are not the norm. What distinguishes systems like Singapore's is that this quality of education—aimed at empowering students to use their knowledge in inventive ways—is replicated throughout the entire nation of 4.8 million, which is about the size of Kentucky, the median US state. Furthermore, Singapore is not alone. The pace at which many nations in Asia and Europe are pouring resources into forward-looking systems that educate all their citizens to much higher levels is astonishing. And the growing gap between the United States and these nations—particularly in our most underfunded schools—is equally dramatic.
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 color 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.... For homework, students must take home photocopied pages, with no accompanying text for guidance or reference, when and if their teachers have enough paper to use to make homework copies.... Luther Burbank is infested with vermin and roaches and students routinely see mice in their classrooms. 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, and has not recently been updated. 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 for budgetary reasons.... Ceiling tiles are missing and cracked in the school gym, and school children are afraid to play...in the gym because they worry that more ceiling tiles will fall on them during their games.... The school has no air conditioning. On hot days classroom temperatures climb into the 90s. The school heating system does not work well. In winter, children often wear coats, hats, and gloves during class to keep warm.... 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 kinds of circumstances, when the school lacks the rudiments needed to focus on the quality of learning and teaching or the development of higher-order thinking, it is impossible even to begin to talk about developing the deep knowledge and complex skills required of young people in today's and tomorrow's society.