Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

(No?) Students Left Behind: Rethinking Education in the United States

By Delphi CleavelandPublished November 11, 2015

In response to the growing murmurs of discontent emerging from parents, teachers, and politicians alike, the Obama administration has announced it too would like to give it's opinion on educational reform. With mounting inequality, falsified proficiency standards, and students who's knees are buckling under backpacks overflowing with stress, it's time for some serious changes.

By Delphi Cleaveland 11/11/2015
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    Recently, the Obama administration announced they would be adding education reform to their CV before the end of the President's term —and ideally before the next budget decision. In response to the growing murmur of bipartisan discontent on the subject of standardized testing, President Obama has encouraged Congress to ‘reduce over-testing' through the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Assessment (ESEA).
    From Pre-K through 12th grade, students across the United States take a minimum of 112 standardized tests -which take up nearly 25 hours of class- time per year. These tests are state mandated with the intent of generating greater accountability on behalf of the schools' annual performance. Recent studies depict however, that as federal spending on education has dramatically increased, test scores have remained consistently low. In fact, the United States ranks 22nd out of the 27 most developed countries in the world, in terms of primary educational attainment.
    Former President Lyndon B. Johnson, initially established the ESEA, as part of his civil rights legislation, seeking to provide "quality and equality in the schooling that we offer our young people." At conception it was meant to set precedent as a dynamic piece of legislation, evolving with the education system in the United States. The bill remained untouched however, until 2001, when President G. W. Bush famously implemented his No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). As part of this legislation, schools became subject to annual evaluations, based solely on the test scores of their students; evaluations served with strings attached.
    Schools who's students fail to meet the standards set by the state and local governing bodies, can be placed on the receiving end of a variety of repercussions intended to incentivize motivation for improvement. These repercussions mostly take the form of sanctions that range from cuts in funding to complete "lobotomies" of the school's administration.  Yet while the intent is clearly that of improvement, quite the opposite seems to be trending. Funding for public schooling in the last decade has skyrocketed, while test scores have remained relatively consistent. But where is all of this money going? 
    Under closer inspection, the answer to this question paints a grim picture of inequality. A report published by the Education Law Center, highlighted the various facets of inequality, present in the current schooling system. For instance, students in New York -the highest spending state- receive nearly $12,000 more in annual education funding than students in Idaho —the lowest spending state. Further studies have found that even within states, the distribution of funding continues to have considerable impact on gentrification in major urban areas, and is ultimately a leading factor in cyclic and increasing poverty.
    In desperate attempts to avoid sanctions on funding, or the gutting of their school's administration, teachers and institutions have been forced to established purposefully low or attainable proficiency levels, as a means of displaying consistent progress. Tacked onto this loophole in accountability, is the argument proficiency-based learning does not work to the benefit of all students. In fact, while student attainment has stagnated students today report higher levels of anxiety and stress than ever before; stress that brings with it, detrimental side affects.  
    The Obama administration, in their most recent proposal, have laid ground work for impressive improvements, across the American education system as it exists at present. Most notably the provision to have testing take up no more than 2% of class time has been applauded. Yet the policy alterations and implementations need to also address the uneven distribution of funding; lacking nexus between federal funders, states, and school districts, which inhibits accountability; and the acknowledgment that there is no "one size fits all" learning style across student bodies. Education is an increasingly mandated qualification for later prosperity in the United States and as Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Education Fund, puts it "[inequitble schooling] is one of the sleeper civil rights issues of our time." It's time to clean under the rug.