Is Education Becoming too Political?

Imagine classroom divisions based on student ability instead of age. Imagine that instead of studying subjects in school, you work on projects that teach different interactive lessons. Imagine no standardized tests and learning through experience.

This is the vision of Nikhil Goyal, a 20 year-old author from Long Island and author of two books in which he critically examines America’s school system and offers his take on possible solutions. He is one of the first student voices to publicly speak out against America’s education systems, and he has already been nominated for secretary of education by the former U.S. Department of Education, Diane Ravitch, because of his ideas and influence.

Since the 1960s the federal government has become increasingly more involved in education, and its idea of what education should be is drastically different from Goyal’s. In recent years, No Child Left Behind, Race to The Top, and the Every Student Succeeds Act have all been integral in reforming our current educational system. These past few decades of reform have marked the greatest shifts in education policy from the long-held tradition of local control over education. The shifts – overseen by federal government – have left many to wonder, is education becoming too political?

The government’s involvement in education has drastically shifted the focus away from students and onto standards. This shift is making education especially political and is damaging the way in which today’s students learn and regard learning.

Since China’s scores are so competitive globally, it is not surprising that the U.S. is looking to restructure its system to look more like theirs. Unfortunately, while Chinese education may receive the best scores, they may also produce some of the worst students because many lack the ability to think creatively and independently. They simply know how to master the test because their social standing depends on their scores on the gaokao, the college entrance exam. Life is much different than a standardized test, but education reform in the last two decades seems to be ushering our students into this kind of learning.

The focus on standardized testing began with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in the early 2000s, which gave the federal government large amounts of control over local and state education. In response to the widening achievement gaps between affluent and less privileged students, NCLB emphasized standardized testing, as its architects believed it would help the government identify and repair struggling schools improve the country’s performance on a global scale.

Unfortunately, government-based funding for schools depended on the test results of that district, and districts were held accountable low test scores. These tests lack accuracy because not all students are skilled test takers and the weight of the test adds stress onto students that may decrease their ability to perform and causes variations between each testing period. Teachers of students with continually low test scores’ jobs were in jeopardy and the federal government could withhold or cut funding from schools that do not meet standards. This caused already struggling schools to suffer from even less funding, further limiting resources for students and teachers. With the emphasis on standardized testing and the pressure on teachers to improve student test scores, teachers began to organize their lessons specifically around the tested material in order to save their jobs. When teachers do this, students experience little creativity in the classroom and are unable to reach their full potential.

The Obama Administration continued to focus on standardized tests. Its Race to the Top Initiative began in 2009 and encouraged schools to raise test scores with the incentive of additional funding. The government hoped to “induce states to embrace sweeping new education reforms, such as ‘college and career ready’ graduation standards,” gather data based on standardized tests, and link scores to teacher evaluations. It offered $4.35 billion dollars from the stimulus package to states that competed for shares of the funding, if they met the requirements.

The endowment of funding is based on a point system with a maximum of 500. The Department of Education’s scoring sheet shows that states would earn 125 points for state success factors, 70 points for standards and assessments, which requires the adoption of common standards and testing (of which the Common Core was the only approved model), 47 points for data systems, 138 points for teachers and leadership quality, 50 points for reviving the lowest scoring schools, and 55 points under the specific category titled “General.”

Not all states were awarded funding, and not all states chose to apply (although most did). One thing is certain though: Schools that failed to adopt the Common Core were significantly disadvantaged in the scoring, having been at a loss of 70 points compared to all other states. The Common Core standardizes and regulates education nationwide. Its three components– reading, science, and math – are taught using learning modules which resemble a script for teachers to follow. Then, tests are administered to students via computers to measure progress. The tests are long, difficult and stressful for student and make success out of the reach of many.

The recent Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) overturned NCLB and is the most recent reform to the education system. ESSA was crafted and passed with the intention of being a long-term solution that would improve nationwide K-12 education standards and work toward strengthening our nation’s future through today’s youth.

Although ESSA claims to return power to the states in regard to regulating education and standards, the Department of Education’s approval is required for state regulations. “They’ll have to use ‘college-and-career ready’ standards and [the USDE must] intervene when those expectations aren’t met,” remarks The Atlantic’s Alia Wong. Because of this, the Department of Education can still set the standards and even direct states towards adopting the Common Core.

Although Education Week’s Alyson Klein called ESSA “in many ways a U-turn from the current, much-maligned version of No Child Left Behind,” she notes some educators and citizens anticipate that teachers and students will see little change in the classroom. President Obama used waivers to allow states some additional freedom from NCLB prior to ESSA’s passing. The waivers were given to states that promised to set their own, higher standards. The noticeable change will lie in states and local governments decreasing standardized testing’s use and weight in the classroom. Even though this is a claim of ESSA, Klein mentions that students will still have yearly tests in reading and math from grades three through eight. This means the testing culture will not go away. The most pressing changes were implemented on a temporary basis with the waivers and solidified through ESSA.

As for the achievement gap, U.S. News doubts that ESSA will do much to repair it. ESSA, like NCLB, emphasizes accountability for low improvement margins. Accountability can mean a wide range of things but many see it as punishment for schools that fail to perform. It could mean closing down a school, intervening in the employment of teachers, restricting funding, creating charter schools, or adding more testing to continually measure progress. ESSA also promises to offer vague incentives for excellent teachers to teach at schools with less progress than their counterparts in affluent areas. The $270 million may help underfunded schools, but the clear success of ESSA will only come with time.

The federal government’s declared intentions for reforming education are positive: help students learn and achieve, especially the most disadvantaged ones. The government also wants students in the U.S. to become more competitive in the global economy and job market. The issue, however, arises from the methods in which they are addressing these issues. Architects of education reform, especially the authors behind the Common Core, believe that standardization will help us achieve higher test scores. Businesses like Pearson and the College Board have been huge advocates of Common Core and benefit from creating new textbooks and standardized test material that cater to the new curriculum. Common Core has made it harder for students to learn, requires rigorous testing, and leaves little room for creativity or choice in the classroom for teachers and students alike. While the government’s intentions mention being student-focused, the real focus seems to be on raising test scores to become more competitive in the global economy. But why do these scores matter? There is no prize aside from pride.

It is hard to say who benefits from these changes. Business entrepreneurs such as Pearson and the College Board certainly do, but does anyone else? Our test score averages have done little to improve, and we are only squashing something that makes America so different than other countries: our creative and entrepreneurial spirit.

Education should be tailored to the student. Students do not learn best when only one method of learning is available, nor do teachers educate students the best when they have little choice in curriculum. This is why standardization and increased federal control of education are so controversial. Students like Nikhil Goyle should be a part of the decision making. Goyle’s ideal classroom with no grades and no subjects and separation based on ability is a far cry from what exists today, but the correct way to regulate education is still highly disputed. Above all, education should be about students– not scores, standards, businesses, or global comparisons. And it certainly should not be about politics.