School Reform: Where is the Evidence?

Under the Bush administration, the rhetoric is that the decisions we make in schools should be based on “scientific” evidence. Not only must it be “scientific,” according to the administration, but it must be based on the controlled experimental design, which is actually just one acceptable form of evidence within the scientific paradigm. No actual scientific field relies exclusively on this one form. However, putting that aside, even accepting a broader range of scientific evidence, the basic tenets mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) are not based on any empirical evidence, controlled experiment or not(1), and many, as I will outline, are in contradiction to accepted educational and organizational theory.

What are some of these mandates that I am referring to? High stakes testing, external tutoring programs, state takeover or charter school reform for “failing schools,” are the ones I will discuss in this column.

High Stakes testing has been around for a long time, and each time it is used it tends to show gains in test scores in the early years which quickly flatten out. Long term educational improvement of any sort has never been demonstrated. NCLB is different in that the stakes are quite higher than in previous reforms, so many argue that previous evidence(2) is not valid. However, the best that that leaves us with is an untested experiment on a massive scale, affecting nearly every public school child in the nation. I won’t even discuss here the massive amounts of monies going to the corporations the make these tests. They get money for developing the test, then selling the tests to the schools, and then for scoring the tests. Then they develop curriculum to help students prepare for these very tests that they design so schools can boost their test scores.

Another major feature of NCLB is that schools that do not reach the required test score goals must offer children tutoring that is done by an outside agency. The theory is that if the school failed the children, they are obviously not qualified to help these children. There is some logic to that theory. However, again, there is no evidence that outside agencies, as a generic category, are better equipped to help failing students than the public schools themselves(3). The administration did not first pilot this approach in some places, and test it against in-house support to demonstrate that it was more effective. Therefore, this mandate is another massive untested experiment, moving enormous Federal dollars from the public to the private sector.

If schools continue to fail to reach mandated test score goals (with rising moving targets—every year a larger percentage of students are required to “pass” the test), then they can be taken over by the state or turned over to private charter agencies. What is the record on this? School districts have been taken over by city or state governments in the past. In California, Compton, and recently Oakland have been the targets of such take-overs. In neither case have there been any significant changes in the education students receive. State governments, not surprisingly, have shown no more capability for creating positive educational changes than the local bodies they replaced. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a theory to support why one would expect them to(4).

Charter schools, which began as an experiment in the early 1990s, and quickly spread across states and cities nationwide, were based on a theory that more freedom from state regulations and forcing local public schools to compete for students would create educational innovations and improvements. This is based on the market theory. This is a reasonable theory, especially in a country whose economy is based on such a theory. In fact many charter schools are exciting places, with innovative pedagogy showing successful results. However, after extensive research, charter schools as a class, have shown no higher test scores than their public school counterparts(5).

Another possibility in some states is the use of vouchers to send children to private schools. However, again, if you hold demographic variables constant, even private schools show no better results on standardized test scores than do public schools(6). If we are supposedly doing this reform in the name of accountability, private schools have no accountability either to state governments nor their local constituencies. There are no public school boards nor open meetings laws required of private schools, nor are their financial records open to public or government scrutiny. Once more, this aspect of NCLB is based on a theory which current evidence does not support. In most states private schools do not have to administer the same standardized tests that NCLB holds public schools accountable to. While public schools, who are answerable to the public directly, are not trusted without such tests, for some reason, private schools do not need to demonstrate any such accountability.

Is there evidence for other ideas? There is something that schools that have made a significant and dramatic difference for students have in common—local control. Some of the most effective schools are those where the people closest to the kids—the teachers, parents, and community—are actively involved in deciding the mission and curriculum of the school. It appears to matter less what that curriculum and vision is than that it was made by those closest to the kids. Virtually all of the reforms being called for at the sate and national level are based on a profound mistrust of those very people. Yet it should be obvious that when people feel coerced they are less likely to work efficiently. When people feel empowered, they are most effective. The evidence bears this out. Find a school that has significantly beaten the odds with low-income and minority students, and I’ll bet it did not happen based on external mandates! Progressive examples such as the Central Park East schools in New York, as well as models based on more conservative ideas, such as the KIPP academy and Core Knowledge demonstrate this. Not only that, but it honors our democratic ideals. Democracy is based on  the absurd idea that all citizens are capable of making the important decisions in the public sphere and should do so an equal basis. While it is absurd, no one yet has devised a better alternative.

In terms of a particular approach to learning, there have been a number of longitudinal studies showing the success of progressive and developmental approaches to teaching and learning. These are forms of teaching and learning that are the opposite of the scripted teacher-centered approaches mandated in schools that fail to meet the standardized test score targets required under NCLB. The famous Eight-year study, started in the 1930s, which followed students from their freshmen year in high school to four years after graduation found that those in the progressive schools did better on all significant measures, both in high school and in college, than their matched counterparts(7). The more extensive the reforms, the more impressive the results. Despite these dramatic findings, the public mood had shifted away from such innovations, and the results were ignored after they were published. Another more recent example is the Central Park East schools (both elementary and secondary schools) in New York City, and their resounding success of working with poor minority students in East Harlem, with 80 to 90% of the graduates getting into and being successful in four year colleges. Yet these schools are under constant attack to discontinue their innovative approaches(8). A couple of recent studies of preschool practices, comparing developmental child-centered approaches against academic skills based approaches have shown better academic and social outcomes in later elementary grades for those in the child-centered developmental programs. One of these was done in Florida(9), and the other an international study covering over 5,000 students in 1,800 preschool setting in 10 different countries(10).

The reforms of NCLB are based on a premise that those closest to the children should not be trusted to make the important decision about their education. The teachers should not be trusted to make the important decisions about how to teach the children, and the parents should not be trusted to govern the schools locally. It is based on a theory that unless coerced, these parties will not act in the best interest of their own children. It is based on a theory that unless coerced, children are not interested in learning. This is in direct contradiction to the basis of democracy. Democracy is based on the theory that no one is better positioned nor has more of a right to make decisions over their own lives than those most directly effected.

As children spend twelve or more years incarcerated in these institutions called schools, which are becoming more and more anti-democratic, our children are losing the one public place where they might learn what it means to be citizens in a democracy, where they might experience democracy in practice.

If you believe as I do that NCLB is counter to the educational needs of our children and the democratic needs of our society, at a minimum let your state and federal representatives know, as NCLB is up for reauthorization very soon. Unless they hear otherwise, these legislatures will take the politically safe course and not make any significant changes. If you would like to be more involved see my links page for some organizations that are working actively on this issue, such as The Forum for Education and Democracy, and FairTest.


1. Gerald W. Bracy, “Things Fall Apart: NCLB Self-Destructs,” Phi Delta Kappan, February 2007.

2. A.L. Armrein and David C. Berliner, “High-Stakes Testing, Uncertainty, and Student Learning,” Education Policy Analysis Archives 10, no. 18 (2002).

3. Bracy, “Things Fall Apart: NCLB Self-Destructs.”

4. Kenneth K. Wong and Francis X. Shen, “Measuring the Effectiveness of City and State Takeover as a School Reform Strategy,” Peabody Journal of Education 78, no. 4 (2003).

5. Katrina Bulkley and Jennifer Fisler, “A Decade of Charter Schools: From Theory to Practice,” Educational Policy 17, no. 3 (2003).

6. Sarah Theule Lubienski and Christopher Lubienski, “A New Look at Public and Private Schools: Student Background and Mathematics Achievement,” Phi Delta Kappan, May 2005.

7. Wilford M. Aiken, The Story of the Eight-Year Study (New York: Harper and Row, 1942).

8. David Bensman, Central Park East and Its Graduates: Learning by Heart (New York: Teachers College Press, 2000).

9. Rebecca A. Marcon, “Moving up the Grades: Relationship between Preschool Model and Later School Success,” Early Childhood Research & Practice 4, no. 1 (2002).

10. Jeanne E. Montie, Zongping Xiang, and Lawrence J. Schweinhart, “Preschool Experience in 10 Countries: Cognitive and Language Performance at Age 7,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 21, no. 3 (2006).

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