Seven Reasons I Really Dislike Public Education Reform

Dr. Jim Taylor

I am not a fan of the Obama administration’s public education initiatives, including Race to the Top. The programs are, in my view, mislabeled, misdirected, and misguided. Here are my seven reasons to really dislike public education reform:

1 Public education reform is dishonest (though not maliciously so). The reality is that public education is doing just fine in many parts of the country. What reform is really about is educating our disadvantaged youth, who reside mostly in inner cities and the rural South, and closing the achievement gap that exists between the haves and have-nots. This means that a lot of money and unnecessary regulations are being directed to school districts, generally affluent and suburban, that simply don’t need it.

2 More of the same. We’ve devoted decades and billions of dollars to doing more or less the same thing. We must do things dramatically differently rather than continuing to make iterative changes that don’t depart far from the current public-education groupthink.

3 Teaching to the test is the focus. The problem is that teaching to the test doesn’t have much to do with actual education. With the emphasis on reading and math skills aimed at passing the tests, school curricula are narrowed, depriving students of valuable exposure to the arts, physical and social sciences, and humanities. Also, the emphasis on testing sucks the joy out of teaching for teachers and learning for students.

4 Cheating is encouraged. Even the most nobly driven professions, such as teaching, will do what they have to do to survive. And survival in public education means getting the funding dangled like a carrot by our federal government. States are gaming the system by watering down standards. Schools are engaging in attendance and grade fraud. Teachers are giving answers to students on their exams. And students are cheating to get better grades.

5 Teachers are seen as the problem. Yes, there are some bad teachers, but certainly not enough to blame our public education failures on them. The teachers are the people who fight the good fight every day against enormous odds for low pay and even less respect.

6 Local control of curricula. The conventional wisdom is that states and local school boards know what’s best for educating our children. This belief may have been true a half century ago, when people tended to live and work where they were raised. But times have changed. Our mobile society and a global economy have obliterated district, county, and state lines that once had meaning. And local control means curricula that are supported by decades of inertia, groups invested in the status quo (e.g., teachers’ unions, school boards, textbook publishers, testing companies). A national curriculum would mean more consistent education, higher standards, less gaming of the system, and children who are better prepared for the flat world in which they will live.

7 The root cause is missed. Current efforts, such as Race to the Top, assume that the problem is failing schools; if you fix the schools, you fix the students. But failing schools are the symptom, not the problem. The real problem is failing students, who are simply unprepared to succeed when they begin school. Poor children start far behind kids from middle- and upper-income families because they lack the attitudes and basic learning skills necessary for academic success. Any effort to improve these areas once they arrive at school is just a game of catch-up in which the vast majority of these students never catch up. The solution then is to change the environment in which disadvantaged children are raised before they get to school: better child care and preschool, parent education, books in poor homes, a living wage so parents don’t have to work two or more jobs, and safe neighborhoods.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D. in psychology, is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco. He blogs on education and technology for,,,, and other Web sites around the country, as well as on blog/archives/education.