A perverse problem with education reform is that, on a high enough level, almost everyone agrees it's a good thing. Unfortunately, it is easy to confuse the question of "is it a good idea to improve education?" with some far murkier questions such as:
Why is it urgent now to change education radically?
What constitutes ideal educational outcomes?
What are the most effective steps for improving education?
These are difficult questions which interact with each other in highly complex ways. Discussing them is hard enough under the best conditions but it gets much worse when advocates for certain proposals dismiss criticism by saying the people on the other side simply don't care about children (a practice that far predates the current education reform debate).
As for the question of urgency, members of the education reform movement have almost always pointed to either our decline in international tests such as PISA or our race and class based achievement gaps. The second of these is very real and very worrisome, but it often has a rather indirect relationship with reform proposals like introducing common core or greatly reducing teacher tenure.
As for the first, education historian and movement reformer turned gadfly, Diane Ravitch offers the following context.
International testing began in the mid-1960s with a test of mathematics. The First International Mathematics Study tested 13-year-olds and high-school seniors in 12 nations. American 13-year-olds scored significantly lower than students in nine other countries and ahead of students in only one. On a test given only to students currently enrolled in a math class, the U.S. students scored last, behind those in the 11 other nations. On a test given to seniors not currently enrolled in a math class, the U.S. students again scored last.
The First International Science Study was given in the late 1960s and early 1970s to 10-year-olds, 14-year-olds, and seniors. The 10-year-olds did well, scoring behind only the Japanese; the 14-year-olds were about average. Among students in the senior year of high school, Americans scored last of eleven school systems.
In the Second International Mathematics Study (1981-82), students in 15 systems were tested. The students were 13-year-olds and seniors. The younger group of U.S. students placed at or near the median on most tests. The American seniors placed at or near the bottom on almost every test. The “average Japanese students achieved higher than the top 5% of the U.S. students in college preparatory mathematics” and “the algebra achievement of our most able students (the top 1%) was lower than that of the top 1% of any other country.” (The quote is from Curtis C. McKnight and others, The Underachieving Curriculum: Assessing U.S. Mathematics from an International Perspective, pp. 17, 26-27). I summarized the international assessments from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s in a book called National Standards in American Education: A Citizen’s Guide (Brookings, 1995).
The point worth noting here is that U.S. students have never been top performers on the international tests. We are doing about the same now on PISA as we have done for the past half century.
Does it matter?
In my recent book, Reign of Error, I quote extensively from a brilliant article by Keith Baker, called “Are International Tests Worth Anything?,” which was published by Phi Delta Kappan in October 2007. Baker, who worked for many years as a researcher at the U.S. Department of Education, had the ingenious idea to investigate what happened to the 12 nations that took the First International Mathematics test in 1964. He looked at the per capita gross domestic product of those nations and found that “the higher a nation’s test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance on this measure of national wealth–the opposite of what the Chicken Littles raising the alarm over the poor test scores of U.S. children claimed would happen.” He found no relationship between a nation’s economic productivity and its test scores. Nor did the test scores bear any relationship to quality of life or democratic institutions. And when it came to creativity, the U.S. “clobbered the world,” with more patents per million people than any other nation.
Baker wrote that a certain level of educational achievement may be “a platform for launching national success, but once that platform is reached, other factors become more important than further gains in test scores. Indeed, once the platform is reached, it may be bad policy to pursue further gains in test scores because focusing on the scores diverts attention, effort, and resources away from other factors that are more important determinants of national success.” What has mattered most for the economic, cultural, and technological success of the U.S., he says, is a certain “spirit,” which he defines as “ambition, inquisitiveness, independence, and perhaps most important, the absence of a fixation on testing and test scores.”
Baker’s conclusion was that “standings in the league tables of international tests are worthless.”