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Education Reform in the United States

A guide to research on the issues surrounding education reform in the United States.

Education Reform

Education Reform is the name given to the goal of changing public education. Historically, reforms have taken different forms because the motivations of reformers have differed. However, since the 1980s, education reform has been focused on changing the existing system from one focused on inputs to one focused on outputs (i.e., student achievement). In the United States, education reform acknowledges and encourages public education as the primary source of K-12 education for American youth. 

As a result of this input-output system, equality has been conceptualized as an end point, which is often evidenced by an achievement gap among diverse populations. As a result of this input-output system, equality has been conceptualized as an end point, which is often evidenced by an achievement gap among diverse populations.

Reform has taken many forms and directions. Throughout history and the present day, the meaning and methods of education have changed through debates over what content or experiences result in an educated individual or an educated society. Changes may be implemented by individual educators and/or by broad-based school organization and/or by curriculum changes with performance evaluations.

The one constant for all forms of education reform includes the idea that small changes in education will have large social returns in citizen health, wealth and well-being.



Additional Information

The term "achievement gap" is often defined as the differences between the test scores of minority and/or low-income students and the test scores of their White and Asian peers. But achievement gaps in test scores affect many different groups. Some groups may trail at particular points, for example, boys in the early years and girls in high school math and science. Differences between the scores of students with different backgrounds (ethnic, racial, gender, disability, and income) are evident on large-scale standardized tests. Test score gaps often lead to longer-term gaps, including high school and college completion and the kinds of jobs students secure as adults.

Student Groups Experiencing Achievement Gaps

  • Racial and ethnic minorities
  • English language learners
  • Students with disabilities
  • Boys/girls
  • Students from low-income families

Indicators of Achievement Gaps

  • Performance on tests (statewide tests, SATs, etc.)
  • Access to key opportunities (advanced mathematics, physics, higher education, etc.)
  • Attainments (high school diploma, college degree, employment
  • Four Ethnic Groups Affected by the Achievement Gap

    American Indians and Alaska Natives

    Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders




    Other Groups Affected by the Achievement Gap

    Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people

    National Education Association

Here are three reasons supporting the claim that standardized tests negatively impact education, and three more reasons
supporting it.

Standardized tests negatively impact education:

Creativity crash

A trend of "teaching to the test" has become widespread in the US, which narrows teachers’ focus on only teaching subjects that will help students perform well on standardized tests. Yet, studies have shown that students are more successful when focused on learning rather than on exam performance. According to the National Council of Teachers of English, subjects such as art, social studies, foreign languages and music have been sidelined, as they are generally not tested on. In this vein, tests like the SATs – which only test for math and reading – don’t account for students’ strengths in other areas of learning, and only encourage a narrowing of the high school curriculum. These tests should be an evaluation tool for students’ overall intellect instead of only evaluating their test-taking abilities.

Not worth the cost

Standardized tests are astronomically expensive, using taxpayer dollars that could be put towards better use. A study found that standardized tests cost some states over $1.7 billion a year. There are schools all over America that are in dire need of updated materials, funding for teachers, school psychologists, more after-school programming, etc., which a Rutger's University Study shows as having a positive impact on student achievement. Instead, this money is currently going towards student assessments, and taking away essential resources from which students would highly benefit. Additionally, tests like the SATs may be biased towards those students who come from money; if they can afford to go to an expensive school or prep course, and if they have more time to study because they don’t have to work, then they will most likely perform better on such tests.

Taking it out on the teachers

Teachers’ success is partially measured by their students’ scores on standardized tests. However, these scores are dependent on all of the students’ teachers combined – not just on a singular teacher’s performance. Studies have shown that standardized test scores are not a good predictor for teacher effectiveness, yet most states use them as an evaluative tool for teachers. In fact, states like New York have proposed to increase the weight of this tool on evaluating teacher performance to 50%. Such a system that punishes and rewards teachers based on test scores won’t contribute to better education for students.


Standardized tests improve education:


Equal opportunity

Standardized tests ensure the education level in America is up to par – for everyone. The US’s Every Student Succeeds Act, which began in 2016, requires states to use proficiency on standardized exams as a method of holding elementary, middle and high schools accountable for their students’ success. This was intended to close the gap between minority and poverty-stricken students with those from higher-income families. Not only do standardized tests give every student the opportunity to learn the same material as their peers in other schools, but state funding laws incentivize schools to ensure every student does well on these exams. As Washington State’s Senator Patty Murray said about education laws, “We know that if we don’t have ways to measure students’ progress, and if we don’t hold states accountable, the victims will invariably be the kids from poor neighborhoods, children of color, and students with disabilities.”

Objective measure

Regarding university admissions, it’s important to have an objective measure by which to evaluate applicants, especially regarding scholarship applications and determining academic placement. This is where standardized tests are beneficial, given that personal interviews and demographic information automatically subject evaluations to bias and human error. Colleges and universities need some sort of unbiased tools with which to screen applicants. These tests help place students in the appropriate place of learning by removing bias from the equation. The SATs are not perfect, but they provide a good service in that vein. The SATs (and other standardized tests) are largely comprised of multiple-choice questions and scored by machines, and thus provide an objective, statistically reliable criteria through which to compare student success. The SATs also show students’ proficiencies in a narrow focus instead of having their entire academic career come under the microscope.

Help students succeed?

Standardized tests didn’t appear out of nowhere; there is evidence that they teach students important skills. In his book "Defending Standardized Testing," Dr. Richard Phelps presents his findings after analyzing 100 years of research on standardized tests, and concludes that 93% of studies have shown standardized tests as having a positive influence on student achievement. Additionally, cognitive studies have found that test-taking in general actually helps students retain information long-term.

The Perspective



What is School Choice?

School choice allows public education funds to follow students to the schools or services that best fit their needs—whether that’s to a public school, private school, charter school, home school or any other learning environment parents choose for their kids.

School choice encompasses much more than just school vouchers or charter schools. There are many ways in which families can choose the best educational setting for their kids.

Remember, every state is different so check out choices in your state.

Types of School Choice and how they are funded:

Charter Schools

Charter schools are independently run public schools exempt from many rules and regulations in exchange for increased accountability. Typically, if charters receive more applications than they have open seats, they must accept students based on a lottery. Families do not need to use ESAs, vouchers or tax-credit scholarships to pay to enroll their children in charter schools as these schools are already publicly funded.

Magnet Schools

A magnet school is a public school that offers specialized curricula and programs not available in traditional neighborhood public schools. Magnets are designed to attract students with a common interest or skillset, and students must apply and be accepted to enroll. Families do not need to use ESAs, vouchers or tax-credit scholarships to pay to enroll their children in magnet schools as these schools are already publicly funded.

Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)

ESAs allow parents to withdraw their children from public district or charter schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized savings accounts with restricted, but multiple, uses. Those funds—often distributed to families via debit card—can cover private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education expenses and other approved customized learning services and materials. Some ESAs, but not all, even allow students to use their funds to pay for a combination of public school courses and private services.

School Vouchers

Vouchers give parents the freedom to choose a private school for their children, using all or part of the public funding set aside for their children’s education. Under such a program, funds typically expended by a school district would be allocated to a participating family in the form of a voucher to pay partial or full tuition for their child’s private school, including both religious and non-religious options.

Tax-Credit Scholarships

Tax-credit scholarships allow taxpayers to receive full or partial tax credits when they donate to nonprofits that provide private school scholarships. Eligible taxpayers can include both individuals and businesses. In some states, scholarship-giving nonprofits also provide innovation grants to public schools and/or transportation assistance to students choosing alternative public schools.

Individual Tax Credits and Deductions

Individual tax credits and deductions allow parents to receive state income tax relief for approved educational expenses, which can include private school tuition, books, supplies, computers, tutors and transportation.

Inter-Intra-District Public School Choice

Sometimes referred to as open enrollment, inter- and intra-district choice laws allow families to choose traditional public schools other than the ones the government assigned based on their ZIP Codes. Intra-district choice, allows families to choose from among more than one public school within their assigned district. Inter-district choice allows families to send their children to any traditional public school in their resident state or a defined region. Typically, these open enrollment options still allow public schools to give enrollment preference to students within their assigned district lines.


Homeschooling is an alternative form of education for children outside of public or private schools, typically within their own homes. Homeschooling is regulated differently from state to state.

Online Learning

Online learning allows students to work with their curriculum and teachers over the Internet—in combination with, or in place of, traditional classroom learning. Online schools can be public or private. Families may also use some educational choice options, such as ESAs and vouchers, to pay for online and virtual schooling.

Customized Learning

Customized learning is unique to every child. As an example, some students might use ESA or course choice programs to mix courses from public schools with privately tutored classes at home, online courses, special education therapies and a work-study internship. The possibilities are endless, especially as new innovations in learning continue to emerge.




The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who believed that "full educational opportunity" should be "our first national goal." From its inception, ESEA was a civil rights law.

ESEA offered new grants to districts serving low-income students, federal grants for textbooks and library books, funding for special education centers, and scholarships for low-income college students. Additionally, the law provided federal grants to state educational agencies to improve the quality of elementary and secondary education.

The original goal of the law, which remains today, was to improve educational equity for students from lower-income families by providing federal funds to school districts serving poor students.



The No Child Left Behind Act was a piece of federal education legislation that replaced ESEA and was signed into public law in 2001 by President George W. Bush. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) supported standards-based education reform, built on the philosophy that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals for schools would improve individual outcomes for public school students. The legislation required states to develop standardized tests and to give these assessments to all students at certain designated grade levels in order to receive federal funding. Each individual state was responsible for developing its own standards.

Schools had to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), meaning that student's test scores must have improved when compared to the previous year's students at that grade level. If schools failed to meet this requirement, they were held accountable.

States were required to provide "highly qualified" teachers to all students. Each state was responsible for creating their standard for "highly qualified." States were also required to create "one high, challenging standard," which the state defined, and the state had to apply these curriculum standards to all students.

The law also required schools to allow military recruiters access to students' contact and academic information if the school also provided this information to colleges or employers, unless the student chose to opt-out.



President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law on December 10, 2015. This Act replaced the previous version (NCLB). 

ESSA includes provisions that will help to ensure success for students and schools. Below are just a few. The law:

  • Advances equity by upholding critical protections for America's disadvantaged and high-need students.
  • Requires—for the first time—that all students in America be taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.
  • Ensures that vital information is provided to educators, families, students, and communities through annual statewide assessments that measure students' progress toward those high standards.
  • Helps to support and grow local innovations—including evidence-based and place-based interventions developed by local leaders and educators—consistent with our Investing in Innovation and Promise Neighorhoods.
  • Sustains and expands this administration's historic investments in increasing access to high-quality preschool.
  • Maintains an expectation that there will be accountability and action to effect positive change in our lowest-performing schools, where groups of students are not making progress, and where graduation rates are low over extended periods of time.

U.S. Department of Education



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