One step forward, two steps back: The unintended consequences of school reform

While the goal of K-12 school reform is admirable, there are a number of unintended consequences that keep some public school systems from operating at their highest level of effectiveness.


Among the many responsibilities public schools face on a daily basis, there is one that reigns over all: The passing of knowledge and the development of academic and intellectual skills as measured by test scores. This is the only function of schools that gets measured and the only function that matters in the eyes of those who have created the standards today.

Even if a school masters all of its other responsibilities, such as instilling social values, teaching financial literacy, and providing a safe harbor for neglected children, it still won't be considered a successful institution unless it has mastered standardized testing.

This obsession with test scores is unfortunate. What many don't realize is that raising the bar and increasing standards won't change the average intelligence in America. In fact, raising the bar can have a reverse effect. By definition, 50 percent of America's children will remain below average regardless of how high standards are increased. The back doors of public schools will grow wider as those left behind exit the public-school system.


Tearing down the system and starting from scratch is not the answer; closing school systems can have a devastating effect on families and the surrounding communities. Instead, public school districts have an opportunity to consider creative alternatives and lead the way to a more productive and advanced educational system.

Furthermore, public schools should compete with one another to have the very best, most cutting-edge special education programs. How lucky a school district will be to have people move into their community to participate in a program that proves successful for all kinds of students, that represents growth for the community, an asset for employers wanting to attract top-flight employees, and progress for chambers of commerce wanting to bring new industry to the community. Who loses if all school districts create outstanding special education programs? No one.


Partnering with a private, for-profit organization is an often overlooked way for public schools to compete and gain ground, while also serving those students who are at risk of being left behind. Great public schools are great for the community. They foster higher revenue, happier parents and happier employees. They bolster safer communities and better community engagement. And in the end, they bring the public back to public education.

Every community should have strong education as a core value. The communities, the school districts and the business leaders can innovate and partner to create systems that may look different, but also offer important solutions.

Mark Claypool is the president and CEO of Educational Services of America, which has several programs in the Bay Area. ESA is the nation's leading provider of behavior therapy and alternative and special education programs for children and young adults. Claypool is also the author of “We're in this Together: Public-Private Partnerships in Special and At-Risk Education.”

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