This literature review examined the history of educational reform in the United States to improve achievement for all students. From the development of factory model schools in the mid-19th century and business model schools at the turn of the 20th century to the more recent reforms of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), this review looked at how reform has become more personalized to individual student needs rather than catering to the needs of the masses. It also looked at how the role of the teacher has changed dramatically from a deliverer of knowledge to a facilitator of learning. The value that research places on teacher collaboration, most notably in the form of professional learning communities as a tool for reforming teacher practices and improving student achievement, was explored as well. Finally, this review of the literature will seek to show how professional learning communities have been embraced in the research as an effective tool to help teachers focus on standards and accountability.
Education reform is nothing new in the United States; there have been reforms taking place in American education for over 150 years. Early education reform focused more on creating students who were good citizens with skills to be successful in an assembly-line society. Critical thinking and problem solving were not necessary to be successful as a laborer in the factory; therefore, these skills were given little attention. In fact, it was not until A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (1983) was published comparing the scores of students in the United States with students in other industrialized nations that many Americans realized that perhaps there was something wrong with the educational system in the United States. There had been other studies and reports prior to 1983, but A Nation at Risk fired a warning shot that awakened Americans up to the fact that problems with American education was not just a domestic concern, but a global problem of the most serious magnitude (A Nation at Risk, 1983).
Although reform of educational practices in the United States has been a major concern for many years, there has been little headway in the reform movements despite numerous political mandates, policy changes, and revisions. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, despite its many detractors and critics, probably did more to promote and bring about educational reform than any policy before or after it. If nothing else, NCLB generated greater awareness of the problem and created an atmosphere of accountability for teachers, administrators, and students. Holding students and teachers accountable for achievement on state tests became the center piece of educational reform; and to NCLB’s credit, holding educators and students accountable did bring about improvement – especially in accountability for the content covered by the test. Teachers could no longer teach what they wanted with little or no concern for accountability of the content they taught. For their students to score well on the state tests, they had to follow and teach the grade level or subject area competencies established by the state. Although this brought about some improvement in what students were expected to know, the expectations from state to state often varied dramatically. For example, using the 2009 statewide assessment results reported by the Mississippi Assessment and Accountability Reporting System (MAARS), state results showed 13.2% of Mississippi fourth graders at the advanced level in language arts/reading and 11.0% of fourth graders at the advanced level in mathematics. However, when these numbers are compared to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the only nationwide comprehensive test for measuring and comparing how students are educated, there is a huge discrepancy. According to the NAEP results for that year, only 2% of Mississippi fourth graders scored advanced in reading while only 4% of Mississippi fourth graders scored advanced in mathematics. Why the discrepancies? There are many reasons. First, tests such as the NAEP should not be used as a comparison unless factors such as educational opportunity and socioeconomic impact are also considered (NAEP, 2010). Second, tests such as the NAEP use only a population sample (selected fourth and eighth graders with NAEP) to disaggregate their results; therefore, data could possibly be skewed by the testing demographics alone. Finally, a major reason for the discrepancies is the development of the state assessments themselves. Initially, state assessments were designed to provide a pass/fail minimum cut point, and the assessments were not intended to be used as a state-to-state comparison. Also, the rigor of the assessments could vary widely from state to state based on the nonstandardized content required by each independent state assessment developmental group. For example, the rigor on the state test in Mississippi could be either greater or less than the designed rigor of state assessments in Louisiana or Alabama. In other words, Mississippi’s assessment might be easier or constructed with less rigor than another state’s assessment, or vice versa. In spite of these comparative issues, assessment data have become the major focal point of new school improvement initiatives with emphasis on student growth, teacher evaluations, merit pay, charter schools, and Common Core State assessments that are designed to align the rigor of state assessments across the nation.
Alignment of state assessments through Common Core State Standards will hopefully prove to be the tool that educators have long needed to assess student growth and educational value from state to state. Under the old do your own thing state assessment programs, educators learned quickly how to play the game. Test taking skills became as important as acquisition of knowledge, and depending on the rigor of the state assessment, knowing how to take the test or play the game was often enough for a student to meet the minimalistic demands of the existing state assessment.
This was true unless an educator taught in an area of high poverty with a majority of minority students, then still another set of rules was possible. In these areas, accountability served only to magnify the vast disparity between the haves and the have nots. What educators quickly learned and politicians