Judging Success and Failure of Schools and Districts: Whose Criteria Count?

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

The dominant standard used by most policymakers, media editors, and administrators to judge success is effectiveness: Have you done what you said you were going to do and can you prove it? In a society where “bottom lines,” Dow Jones averages, sports statistics, and vote-counts matter, quantifiable results determine success. No Child Left Behind and its focus on standardized test scores is effectiveness on steroids.

Yet even before No Child Left Behind, policymakers had relied on the effectiveness standard to examine what students have learned by using proxy measures such as state test scores, college attendance, and other indicators. For example, in the late-1970s policymakers concluded that public schools had declined because scholastic aptitudes test (SAT) scores had plunged downward. Even though test-makers and researchers repeatedly stated that such claims were false—falling SAT scores fueled public support for states raising academic requirements in the 1980s. What mattered most to…

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