DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene. The United States has spent a decade trying to improve the standing of its schools compared to the rest of the world. Education researcher Linda Darling-Hammond says the result is disappointing.
LINDA DARLING-HAMMOND: We're actually not doing any better than we were doing a decade ago. In fact, the PISA tests, the international assessments, just came out a couple of weeks ago, and basically the story for the United States over the last decade or more is flatline.
GREENE: Darling-Hammond advised President Obama, but she's dismayed to see his administration continue the high-stakes testing introduced with President Bush's No Child Left Behind law. Darling-Hammond now directs Stanford University's Center for Opportunity in Education. She spoke to my colleague Steve Inskeep about the future of her profession. She noted the revolt by parents and educators against intensive testing and federal penalties for schools that come up short.
DARLING-HAMMOND: Principals in New York state, a third of them signed a petition against the tying of test scores to teacher evaluation. Parents are opting kids out of testing in many communities. Teachers at Garfield High in Seattle protested the misuse of a particular test. So it's spreading across the country.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Are there actually a lot of schools that have been penalized because their students, on average, were not measuring up under No Child Left Behind?
DARLING-HAMMOND: Well, yes. When No Child Left Behind was passed back in 2002, there was a target set for each year for each school that they would get to a place where 100 percent of students would be, quote/unquote "proficient" on the state tests. Researchers knew even then that would be impossible, and here we are coming into 2014 - which was the deadline - and about 80 or 90 percent of the schools in the country have failed this metric to have 100 percent of students proficient. And eventually, all of them will fail this particular target.
INSKEEP: So is the lesson here that we're just going to leave some children behind?
DARLING-HAMMOND: Well, the bar that was set was a completely unrealistic bar. The proficiency level is above grade level. It's kind of like striving to be Lake Woebegone, you know, where everybody is above average. It's not a realistic goal, and there are lots of elements of the law that are unattainable. For example, English learners are taken out of that category when they become proficient. So that category of students can never become 100 percent proficient, because as they become proficient, we no longer count them.
INSKEEP: Is testing something of a corrective for social promotion, at least, in which almost everybody graduates, but many of them may not know very much?
DARLING-HAMMOND: Testing has some utility, if you use it in thoughtful ways. And I would look at, for example, the examination systems in a number of countries where kids are undertaking thoughtful work, and the examinations allow you to have a kind of a common framework or standard for assessing the quality of that work.
Unfortunately, because we've overdone it with a number of tests, we've driven them to be cheap, inexpensive, and, frankly, not focused on the right kind of learning that would drive the curriculum in the right direction.
INSKEEP: Well, help me out here, though, because of course the administration has been supportive of what's called the Common Core, which is hard to describe in a sentence, but I'll try to say: It's a new set of standards that seems to encourage the kind of education you just described other countries having, where it's less about multiple choice answers and more about learning how to think and analyze information. Isn't that happening in some schools across the country?
DARLING-HAMMOND: Well, the Common Core could be a pathway to a more meaningful curriculum and more than 40 states have adopted the Common Core standards, which do aim to create a deeper approach to learning, where kids are taking up critical thinking and problem solving. The question will be whether we change our policies around the nature of testing, the amount of testing, and the uses of testing that accompany these new standards.
And that's really the question for 2014 and beyond: Will we move from a test-and-punish philosophy - which was the framework for No Child Left Behind - to an assess-and-improve philosophy? Will we move from the old multiple choice tests to more open-ended assessments that allow kids to explain their thinking and evaluate and investigate and research and demonstrate their learning?
INSKEEP: You know, there's a lot of fear in this country some years ago that schools - particularly public schools - were failing. That's why a lot of education reforms have been passed. You have now raised concerns about the reforms themselves. I wonder if you feel, at this moment, that schools are failing.
DARLING-HAMMOND: Well, you know, in general, our schools do better with the challenges they have to face, than I think is trued of most high-achieving nations around the world. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty, mortality, lack of health care, homelessness of any developed country in the world at this point. And we have unequal funding, so that we give more money to the education of rich kids than poor kids.
So our affluent districts in schools do quite well, and are still the envy of many in the world. Our low-income schools and districts are struggling with all these responsibilities and challenges and very little and inadequate public support. And yet, they perform extraordinarily well, given the circumstances they have to meet.
Our system of schools is resilient, but we have to fix these problems. We have to address childhood poverty. We have to put in place early childhood education. We're way behind other countries in doing that. We have to equalize funding in the way that California has. And then we've got to enable teachers to have the tools they need to teach.
INSKEEP: You know, I've had I don't know how people tell me in interviews some version of education is the solution to poverty. Education is the way out of poverty. Listening to you, it sounds like you actually would suggest that that's exactly backwards, that, in fact, attacking poverty might be a way to improve education.
DARLING-HAMMOND: I think that both things are true, that certainly good education is a way out of poverty. That means we have to provide equitable education to kids in low-income communities. At the same time, until we address some of these issues that adhere to poverty itself - kids coming to school without health care, often without homes, without the supports in the communities - we're going to spend a lot more money in education try to address those problems. The two are completely intertwined, and we have to work on both at the same time.
INSKEEP: Linda Darling-Hammond, thanks very much.
DARLING-HAMMOND: Thank you very much.
GREENE: And Steve's conversations about the future continue tomorrow with the future of war.
We want to take a minute to thank you for spending some of this holiday season with us. Hopefully, you're getting a chance to kick back with family and friends. We also know that many of you are working this time of year - someone's got to do it.
Here at MORNING EDITION, our holiday crew includes Larry Kaplow, Lynette Clemetson, Cara Tallo, Maeve McGoran and Adrian Bradley Miller. Out at NPR West in Culver City, California, it's Kaitlin Parker, Kenya Young and Shannon Rhodes. With the time difference, they do have to wake up even earlier than we do here, but it's actually about 50 degrees warmer, and so we're going to call that even.
And finally, we're saying goodbye this week to three longtime colleagues. In fact, they have about six decades of experience combined: Jim Wildman, Steve (unintelligible) Munro and Anne Hawke. You've really shaped the way of the program sounds, and all of us and our listeners will continue benefiting from your legacy. We're excited to follow your next adventures, but we are really going to miss you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.