06/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Single Best, Most Indispensable Essay on Reforming Education

Rethink your assumptions!

Ronald Wolk, founder and longtime editor of Education Week, has published the single best, most indispensable essay on reforming education that I have read.

On the 25th anniversary of the five-alarm "Nation At Risk" report, Wolk weighs in that America has not addressed the fundamental issues that assail our schools and perpetuate American students' "rising tide of mediocrity." Instead of making meaningful reforms, Wolk argues that we "misdiagnosed the problem" and instead made wrongheaded assumptions that have amounted to endless hand-wringing and little progress.

He boils the misdiagnosis down to five assumptions, which I have reprinted here. Beneath each, I have paraphrased Wolk's explanations and included some observations of my own.

Assumption #1: The best way to improve student performance and close achievement gaps is to establish rigorous content standards and a core curriculum for all schools--preferably on a national basis.

No! The "get tough" advocates for better schools via higher standards miss the point that standards, while a useful framework of expectations and educational objective, are only that. They don't compensate for "the conventional school model that is incapable of meeting them." We can't administer high expectations via the "just do it" model. Standards are necessary, but using them as the centerpiece to a national reform movement is misbegotten.

Assumption #2: Standardized-test scores are an accurate measure of student learning and should be used to determine promotion and graduation.

I don't know a person who works closely with students who truly believes this, yet testing continues to cement itself as a dominating fixture in schools. Tests in isolation just don't provide an accurate measure of a living human being.

The overemphasis on testing comes at a heavy price. Valuable classroom time and enormous amounts of money are wasted. Kids don't excel. Students at risk are particularly shortchanged by the mechanistic testing game, and are pushed out the dropout door more quickly. Performance-based assessments paint a much more complete picture of a student's abilities and achievement.

Wolk nails it, "Except in school, people are judged by their work and their behavior. Few of the business and political leaders who advocate widespread use of standardized testing have taken a standardized test since leaving college."

Assumption #3: We need to put highly qualified teachers in every classroom to assure educational excellence.

This is admirable, but not feasible. Since we need millions of teachers, it's not practical to expect them all to be top-notch. Consider that our society treats teachers like subprofessionals, pays them unimpressively, and offers few opportunities for advancement, and it seems hopeless. Teach For America is admirably attacking this issue, but remember that TFA's scalability is limited and that it constitutes less than 0.2 percent of all active teachers. We need to address the drawbacks from teaching and re-imagine the role of a teacher as "an adviser, someone who helps students manage their own education."

DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee made the cover of Time Magazine for her battle against "bad teachers." But what about the crucial work of recruiting, training, and retaining good teachers? It won't come from paying bonuses for high test scores. Wolk argues the human angle, "Creating opportunities for teachers to work together, to teach in teams, to share in professional development, and to be more involved in educational decision-making are ways to bring out the best in teachers."

Assumption #4: The United States should require all students to take algebra in the 8th grade and higher-order math in high school in order to increase the number of scientists and engineers in this country and thus make us more competitive in the global economy.

No! Calculus in 12th grade is not for everyone. We can farm more scientists and engineers by "find[ing] ways to awaken and nourish a passion for those subjects well before high school, and then offer students every opportunity to pursue their interest as far as they wish." It won't happen by forcing advanced high school math on every teenager in America.

Assumption #5: The student-dropout rate can be reduced by ending social promotion, funding dropout-prevention programs, and raising the mandatory attendance age.

When an unacceptably high number of students continue to leave school before graduation, it does no one any good to criminalize them or to repeat empty mantras like "stay in school."

Students drop out mentally long before they stop physically attending school. Wolk explains, "Dropping out of school is not an impulsive decision. The process begins long before high school, often by the 4th or 5th grade, when courses begin to be content-heavy and students can no longer get by with the ability to 'decode' English, but must be able to understand what they read."

We need to understand what pushes these young people out the door, and we need to provide more substantive intervention to more students sooner.


Ronald Wolk has provided a concise wakeup call on an issue whose policy is too often dominated by superficial talking points (Accountability! Data! Standards!). His analysis must be part of our national discourse on how to improve America's schools.

What do you think of his five assumptions? Read the whole essay here. (It requires a free registration to log in.)

Dan Brown is a teacher and the author of The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle, a memoir of his first year in a Bronx classroom.