Districts also decide how to structure “attendance zones,” which determine where students enroll. As with congressional districts, a lot rides on how a district chooses to draw these boundaries, with gerrymandering exacerbating demographic differences between neighborhoods and towns. Many districts, however, allow families to attend any school within the district—a policy that can promote integration if coupled with mechanisms for promoting school diversity. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, for instance, the district uses a “controlled choice” system designed to maintain a balanced mix of students at all schools; in essence, parents can choose any school in the district, with enrollment preferences given to families who help bring the school’s demographics closer in line with the city’s.
Public schools in the United States differ so much from state to state and from district to district that it hardly makes sense to talk about “America’s schools.” In fact, a focus on large-scale national reform can actually do harm, insofar as it must emphasize generic one-size-fits-all solutions that ignore state- and local-level needs. The nationwide push to evaluate teachers using student standardized test scores is a classic example. Strongly backed by former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, so-called “value added” models of assessing teachers were adopted across the nation despite the concerns of education scholars. Worse, the models have undermined trust in the process of teacher evaluation and driven some successful educators out of the profession.
This is not to say that taking the national perspective can’t be valuable. Troubling patterns do exist across the U.S., and discussions about them can play an important role in shaping both public understanding and education policy. Achievement gaps across race and class, for instance, are an important reminder of broader social and economic inequalities, and advocates have used evidence about those patterns to make the case for universal early-childhood education. Similarly, a national dialogue about the disproportionate punishment of black and brown children in schools has drawn attention to an issue that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. These kinds of broad conversations can generate both political will and policy responses.
But more-abstract national-reform rhetoric has little to redeem it. In a system that affords significant authority to schools, districts, and states, it is ill suited for identifying the actual strengths and weaknesses of schools. And when used to drive policy, such rhetoric can generate support for policies that are at best distracting and at worst detrimental. One major example of this is No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the piece of Bush-era legislation that pushed schools to improve students’ standardized test scores each year. But because the federal government has limited power over schools, it offered little other than punishments, such as staff reassignments or school closures, to induce those gains. States and school districts focused their energies on avoiding such punishments, often ignoring critical issues like school culture and student engagement.
The authors of “A Nation at Risk” concluded their report with a simple claim: “Education should be at the top of the Nation’s agenda.” And in creating a new kind of school-reform rhetoric, they seem to have achieved their aim. The question is, has it done more harm than good?