Education as Top Priority:
The Challenges of Education Reform
Kah Ying Choo
For many decades, education
with its seemingly insurmountable challenges has captured the public
spotlight. Ideally, education serves a critical role for society by
generations who will be able to express
their individuality and creativity, thus improving society as a whole
(Blitz, 2001, p. 24). However, this goal is often buried
underneath the nation’s obsessive pursuit to raise test scores as an
indicator of improvement of the education system. What have truly
alarmed policymakers and the public are the low scores of students,
especially disadvantaged ones. National reading tests indicate
that almost 70 percent of inner city fourth graders do not have a basic
level of reading proficiency. In international math tests, high
school students in Cyprus and South Africa surpass American high school
seniors in their results (“No Child Left Behind Executive Summary,”
2001, p. 1). On the most superficial level, the failure of the
school system to improve test scores has thrust it to the forefront of
the federal government’s and the public’s agenda.
Upon his succession as the new President, President George W. Bush
created the No Child Left Behind proposal in a bid to accomplish
the incredible feat of passing a landmark education reform bill (“No
Child Left Behind Executive Summary,” 2001, p. 1). The recent
passage of the education reform bill is a result of the federal
government’s persist promotion of the bill and the endless negotiations
with the key politicians of Congress behind closed doors (Robelen,
2001, p. 1). The federal government’s focus on the education
reform bill is further evidenced by the difficult journey of No Child
Left Behind Act from the White House to its current status.
Contentious discussions between Democrats and Republicans over the
controversial provisions of this bill such as vouchers, the type of
annual tests and the overall funding for these programs constantly
jeopardized the bill. Even in the midst of the economic slowdown
and the war against terrorism, the federal government finally succeeded
in pushing through the passage of the education reform bill (Samuelson,
2001; Anderson, 2001a & 2001b; Brownstein, 2001; Garvey, 2001a &
2001b). Clearly, education is one of the top priorities of the
government spending on education over the years also
reflects the high prioritization of education. According to the
U.S. Census Bureau (2000), the total government spending on education
at federal, state and local levels was $311.7 billion in 1997, an
increase of six percent ($18.9 billion) from 1996. Total
expenditure per public pupil has also climbed steadily from $5,000 in
1983 to $6,943 in 1998 (“1998 Digest of Education Statistics,” cited in
Public Agenda Online, 2002c). Even more recently, Christie (2001)
reports the increase of per-student expenditures by 30.6 percent
between 1996 and 2001.
||At the same time,
education is also considered the top priority for the
American public. In a poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research
Associates, 76 percent of the respondents asserted that the federal
government should increase spending for education, thus ranking
education as the most important issue among 14 issues including health
care, Medicare and crime (cited in Public Agenda Online, 2002b).
Today, the trends of globalization and
technological changes that have transformed the workplace has given
education reform a strong impetus in order to create an education system
that will work in a new world. For close to a century, people were
accustomed to obtaining a well-paid professional job once they completed
their high school and college education. However,
|with the restructuring of the economy, even
professionals such as lawyers, engineers and doctors struggle to acquire
and hold onto their jobs. These realities send a clear signal that
the traditional school system of education needs to be changed in order
to move in synch with the times (Aronowitz, 1996, p. 144).
Although the environment for change has been
ripe for several years, American policymakers, educators and
the general public are divided in their perceptions of the problems
plaguing the education system. Currently, there are four
conflicting perspectives regarding the deficiencies of the education
system and proposed solutions:
• Improve existing public school system by
increasing national standards: The proponents of this
approach believe that schools have failed to provide a basic level of
academic education to students. Therefore, the establishment of
core courses and higher academic standards will improve the education
system (Public Agenda Online, 2002a). The education reform bill
with its emphasis on testing and accountability falls into this group.
• Improve the existing school system by
providing adequate funding: Because many schools are forced
to operate on a small budget, they are unable to provide quality
education for students. However, this approach is undermined by
the simple reality that even with the massive investment of federal
education programs amounting to $120 billion a year, the academic
performance of elementary and high school students remains abysmal (“No
Child Left Behind Executive Summary,” 2001, p. 1).
• Challenging the existing school system
by offering educational choices: The proponents of this
approach believe that the problem with the school system is the lack of
affordable educational choices available to parents. Because public
schools monopolize the education industry, they do not need to compete
with other schools. Consequently, they do not have the incentive
to improve their performance (Public Agenda Online, 2002a). These
individuals thus support the use of vouchers and the establishment of
charter schools (Blitz, 2001).
While the education debate among policymakers
and the public in this country has largely revolved around
the first three perspectives, the perspective that comes closest to
addressing the ultimate objective of education is:
• Reform the
public school system completely by creating student-centered
schools: The proponents of this approach argue that the teacher-centered
traditional school system that imposes a standardized curriculum on
students is the fundamental problem. This perspective strikes at
the heart of the current public schooling system. However,
authentic learning can only occur when students are encouraged to take
an active role in the learning process. They learn how to solve problems
and collaborate with one another in various settings. Beyond
acquiring knowledge, the students are cultivating a capacity to think
that will enable them to handle real-life situations. As
generalists, these students will grow up to become adults who are able
to rapidly adapt to a variety of situations in the challenging new
world, earn a decent income and become happy and productive citizens of
the future (Gordon, 1998, p. 390).
Anderson, N. (2001a, May 4). Revised
education bill is unveiled. The Los Angeles Times, p. A21.
Anderson, N. (2001b, May 23). House endorses plan to expand school
testing. The Los Angeles Times, p. A1.
Aronowitz, S. (1996, January-February). National standards would not
change our cultural capital. The Clearing House, 69(3), 144-147.
Blitz, M. (2001, January). Setting domestic priorities—We need a federal
government that encourages individual freedom and responsibility. World
and I, 16(1), 24-28.
Brownstein, R. (2001, March 7). Allies are forcing Bush to bend on
school testing reform: He’s yielding on how states measure student
performance, as some in GOP push ‘local control’ issue. The Los Angeles
Times, p. A1.
Christie, K. (2001, December). Stateline—States wrap up the year. Phi
Delta Kappan, 83(4), 281-283.
Gordon, R. (1998, January). Balancing real-world problems with
real-world results. Phi Delta Kappan, 79(5), 390-393.
No Child Left Behind Executive Summary. (2001, January 29). Retrieved
February 5, 2002, from U.S. Department of Education Website:
Garvey, M. (2001a, June 13). Senate won’t buy even a diluted version of
voucher remedy education: Modest pilot program, what’s left of Bush
plan, is defeated. The Los Angeles Times, p. A16.
Garvey, M. (2001b, June 16). Trouble may lurk in details of education
bill: Questions loom about funding, testing. Critics say potential
effects are being oversold. The Los Angeles Times, p. A12.
Public Agenda Online (2002a). The perspectives in brief. Retrieved
February 5, 2002, from
Public Agenda Online (2002b). Princeton Survey Research Associates.
Retrieved February 5, 2002, from
Public Agenda Online (2002c). Spending per pupil. Retrieved February 5,
Robelen, E. W. (2001, December 13). House overwhelmingly passes sweeping
education reform bill. --Education Week, 21(15). Retrieved February 7,
Samuelson, R.J. (2001, January 31). It’s about goals, not vouchers. The
Washington Post, p. A21.
U.S. Census Bureau. (2000, August 28). Education facts from the U.S.
Census Bureau. Retrieved February 5, 2002, from
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