More Evidence of the Failure of Choice and Competition to Improve Student Outcomes

The latest national reading test results for the United States show that school choice, competition and accountability measures have had little impact on student achievement. They have failed to increase average reading scores or reduce achievement gaps.

George Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2002 introduced a range of market-based measures that were supposed to lift student results and reduce large achievement gaps between rich and poor and between racial/ethnic groups. Greater school choice, competition and accountability were seen as the answer to America’s relatively poor student results compared with countries such as Finland, Korea, Japan, Canada and Australia.

The most recent report of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly called the nation’s report card, published this week by the National Centre for Education Statistics shows the NCLB to have been a spectacular failure. Average reading scores for grades 4 and 8 were mostly flat in the years preceding the Bush reforms and have remained flat ever since.

The NAEP report also shows that reading results for Black and Hispanic students in grades 4 and 8 remain well below those of White students. Average reading scores for 4th grade Black students increased by only 3% over the seven years to 2009 and by 2% for Hispanic students. Even these small improvements cannot be attributed to the NCLB as similar improvements occurred in the four years prior to its introduction.

There was no improvement in average scores for 8th grade Black and Hispanic students between 2002 and 2009. Scores for Black students have remained flat since 1998, while those for Hispanic students increased slightly in the years preceding the NCLB.

The achievement gaps between Black and White students and between Hispanic and White 4th grade students have narrowed. However, the reduction was no greater than occurred in the four years prior to the introduction of the NCLB. There was virtually no change in the achievement gaps for 8th grade students either prior to the NCLB or since its introduction.

Average 4th grade reading scores for low income students increased by only 2.5% since 2002 while those for 8th grade increased by 1%. Results for 1996-2003 were not published in the report. The results for low income students are well below those of higher income students and the gaps are largely unchanged since 2002.

The NAEP mathematics results were released last year. In contrast to reading, they show some improvements since 2003. However, the increases were less than those achieved in the period preceding the NCLB reforms.

Average 4th and 8th grade mathematics scores increased by about 2% between 2003 and 2009. In contrast, 4th grade scores increased by 5% between 1996 and 2003 and 8th grade scores increased by 3%.

Average mathematics results for Black and Hispanic students are well below White students. Average results for 4th grade Black students increased by 3% between 2003 and 2009 and by 2% for Hispanic students. However, scores for Black students increased by 9% between 1996 and 2003 and by 7% for Hispanic students.

The 8th grade results for Black students increased by 3.5% between 2003 and 2009 compared to an increase of 5% between 1996 and 2003 while the results for Hispanic students increased by about 3% in both periods.

The achievement gaps between Black and White students and between Hispanic and White students in 4th grade mathematics remained virtually unchanged between 2003 and 2009. In contrast, there was a significant reduction in the gaps between 1996 and 2003.

The gaps for 8th grade mathematics narrowed somewhat between 2003 and 2009. However, there was a much larger reduction in the Black-White achievement gap between 1996 and 2003. In contrast, there was little change in the Hispanic-White gap in this period.

Average mathematics scores for low income 4th grade students increased by 3% since 2003 while those for 8th grade increased by 3.5%. Results for 1996-2003 were not published in the report. Mathematics results of low income students are well below those of higher income students and have remained unchanged since 2003.

The Federal Education Minister should have regard to these new results. They add to the growing weight of evidence that increasing competition and accountability in education do not improve student results or reduce achievement gaps. As Chester Finn, a former US Assistant Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan, says, the “big picture….is flat, flat, flat…all the reforming has yielded little or nothing by way of stronger outcomes.”

Despite the weight of evidence, Gillard continues with her agenda of reporting school results and increasing competition between schools. It is doomed to fail as it has in the US and England.

She says she is committed to evidence-based policies. She would do well to follow John Maynard Keynes, who famously said “when the facts change, I change my mind…what do you do?” To do otherwise is to be bound by ideology and faith.

Trevor Cobbold

The new National Assessment of Educational Progress report is available from the National Centre of Education Statistics

Previous Next

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.