Muriel Berkeley, president of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, said that the U.S. needs to reform the way it thinks about public education, as well as education legislation itself. President Barack Obama's proposed overhaul of No Child Left Behind is a good start, but not enough.
The BCP is a non-profit that takes low-performance, high-poverty schools and turns them into charter schools, using coaching and alternative teaching programs to improve performance. The BCP also advocates for educational reform through forums and dialogues. Established in 1996, the BCP currently oversees four charter schools.
According to the government, all four of those schools failed in their mission last year.
According to Berkeley, the schools were successful.
"Teachers were happy with the improvements they saw," Berkeley said. "Principals, parents and family were all excited about the progress the students were making. But it didn't necessarily translate into test scores."
No Child Left Behind relies solely on state tests to determine whether schools are a success (and thus eligible for federal funds). Between grades 3 and 8, students are given an annual multiple choice state test, and the percentage of students who pass it are used as a yardstick of the school's success. The goal of NCLB is to achieve 100 percent proficiency — every single child in the U.S. passing their state math and reading tests — by 2014. Every year, the yardstick for achievement gets longer, and more schools are considered "failing," and are in danger of mass layoffs, loss of funding or even closure of the school altogether.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan predicted that this year, 82 percent of the country's 100,000 public schools would be labeled as failing.
"The idea that you can measure the quality of a school based on answers to an arbitrary state test is misguided," Berkeley said. "Schools have much more important work to do than can be measured by a state test.
"I, frankly, am skeptical that it's possible to come up with a test that's a way to hold schools accountable."
When President George W. Bush signed the NCLB Act in January 2002, he said, “the fundamental principle of this bill is that every child can learn, we expect every child to learn, and you must show us whether or not every child is learning.”
Berkeley agreed that the 100 percent proficiency goal is a noble one, and that every child can learn, but said that "it's more complicated" than taking a test.
"The minute you define the purpose of public education as a result on a test, you've ruined it," she said.
NCLB was created to help students in poor, inner-city schools like those Berkeley oversees. Unable to keep up with the increasingly high requirements for test scores, the schools fall further behind the law's demands and are punished by the same law that was meant to be the students' savior. When funding or teachers are taken away, students in the failing schools are at even more of a disadvantage because of the disruption.
While Obama's offer of waivers for states to bypass NCLB is a good start, Berkeley said that the remaining singular focus on test scores is still a problem. To measure a child's performance, why not sit in the room with the student and listen to them read, she asked. Watch them do a math problem. Study a portfolio of their work instead of assigning them a one-size-fits-all test.
"It's as if the people in charge of the policy stopped thinking, they stopped thinking about the children in schools," she said. "I think that it started out with the best of intentions, but I think we need to be humble and be open to revisiting and trying to figure out how to make it better.
"We just got stuck. We got stuck in blaming teachers and principals, and I don't think we helped the situation."
Photo courtesy Baltimore Curriculum Project
[This post was edited after publication for clarity.]