Please – No More Magic Bullets!

By the Editors of Rethinking Schools

Imagine a chronically sick child suffering from a host of problems including severe asthma, debilitating skin allergies, and bouts of fever from a recurring virus.

Imagine the head of a hospital telling that child, “You’re going to have to try much, much harder to get better. We have some medicines that might help, but there are children down the hall who have shown that they are able to get better. Right now, the medicines are reserved for them. The nurse will be in regularly to take your temperature, and if you do better, then we might reward you with some of the medicine.”

Such an administrator would surely be sued for malpractice. But is the massive and growing emphasis on high-stakes tests really that different?

Across the country, policymakers are instituting high-stakes test after high-stakes test, as if somehow children, schools and districts in low-income areas are not performing well because they lack the will.

An increasingly popular twist in the accountability game is to “reward” high-performing schools and “punish” low-performing schools. It’s not hard to guess who will win this rigged game. There have been decades of experience with standardized tests to show that high-performing schools tend to be clustered in affluent districts where the students are already showered with privileges and resources, while low-performing schools are much more common in poverty-stricken urban and rural areas.

New York state has become the latest to legitimize the savage inequalities that are a hallmark of America’s schools. It was announced in early May that all schools would be required to give the state’s Regent’s exams. Those schools doing well will be rewarded and those performing poorly will be punished.

It’s a beautiful Catch-22: It takes resources and support to perform well, but until you perform well we will not give you the resources and support necessary to perform well.


It’s a sign of the moral bankruptcy of our times that during the longest economic boom on record, the United States of America cannot provide the resources so that every child receives a quality education. Instead, policymakers give our low-income children and schools lectures on “accountability” and mandates for high-stakes tests. But the accountability craze has gotten out of control, as if somehow accountability in and of itself is more important than teaching and learning.

Policymakers need to decide: Are they interested in better documenting failure or are they interested in helping children to learn?

Unfortunately, accountability and high-stakes testing are merely the latest in a long line of “magic bullet reforms.” There’s the voucher magic bullet – under which public schools per se are seen as the problem because they are controlled by the public and don’t provide sufficient choices. The charter school magic bullet rests on the belief that learning will flourish if schools can get rid of troublesome rules and regulations. Site-based governance is another magic bullet, spawned by the belief that if schools can make more decisions, everything will be all right. Now there’s the magic bullet of higher standards, as if somehow schools have been held back by a commitment to low standards.

And now it’s the accountability magic bullet – which in practice has become the high-stakes test magic bullet. After all, what good is accountability if there aren’t consequences? And to prove they are serious about accountability, policymakers have instituted serious consequences.

Public schools have had so many magic bullets in the last 10 years it’s a wonder they haven’t been completely killed off.

Aspects of these reforms have merit. Who wants to be in favor of overly rigid bureaucratic rules? Or top-down decision-making? Or low standards? Or no accountability? But too often, these reforms have been cooked up by politicians and policymakers looking for easy sound bites. They rarely ask the teachers, parents, and students in the schools: What do you need to improve the teaching and learning in your classrooms? Perhaps that’s because they’re afraid that the answers – smaller class sizes, newer buildings, more resources, more time for teacher collaboration and development – will cost more money. What does it say about a society when it more easily finds money for prisons and sports stadiums than for its public schools?

Rethinking Schools offers no magic bullets of reform. We do, however, believe that it is essential to develop principles upon which to base the reforms; see “Vision of Reform” on opposite page.

One thing is clear. It is unconscionable to hold all children to the same high standards but not give all children the resources and support necessary to meet the standards – and then to turn around and punish low-performing students by refusing to let them go to the next grade or get a high school diploma merely because they didn’t darken the right circle on some standardized test.

The high-stakes testing craze is not a vision of reform. It’s a recipe for disaster.