Standards-Based Educational Reforms: Progress, but Enough to Sustain Momentum


A Public Laboratory Dewey Barely Imagined is a masterful article that places standards-based educational reform (“SBR”) in historical context. The authors are cautiously optimistic that SBR will be more successful than desegregation policies and school finance reforms were in improving the education provided to children of color and children from low-income families. At the same time the authors recognize that the success of SBR is by no means assured. They describe the changes required of schools, particularly urban and rural schools. They show that the policy instruments available to promote change in schools, while more powerful than previous generations of reformers had imagined, are more like large kitchen knives in the hands of enthusiastic-but green medical students than scalpels in the hands of well-trained, experienced surgeons. The patient, public education, is ill, and the consequences of doing nothing are dire. However, it is not obvious that the medical student can learn to use the available tools fast enough to save the patient.

A critical reason improvements in American schooling are needed is that the U.S. economy is changing so rapidly. Earnings inequality in the United States has increased tremendously over the last twenty years, and quantity and quality of education affect the life chances of American children more than they did in the past. One illustration of this is the recent history of the earnings gap between black and white male workers. After closing over the period 1955-1975, the gap has grown again over the last quarter century. This has happened even though the gap between the academic skills of 17-year-old black students and those of white students continued to close after 1975. The explanation is that each point in the remaining skills gap translates into a larger difference in earnings than was the case thirty years ago.

Suggested Reading