Federal Education Policy and the States, 1945-2009
The Carter Years: Doubts About Innovation
Ironically, the basic skills competency testing movement coincided with the end of the federally funded Right to Read program. After nearly a decade in operation (the program was the brainchild of federal commissioner of education James Allen in 1969-1970), the program had sought to improve reading proficiency among low-performing students, but it had produced disappointing results. Indeed, achievement had actually declined as students in the program passed from lower into upper grades. As the state Right to Read director in Massachusetts noted, "The cause of this decline remains to be known, since the statewide assessment measured only the results, not causes. Meanwhile, it is open season for finger-pointers to guess at why gains appear to be dissipated as the students proceed through the junior and senior high school." Conceding that schools were "not using the results of the statewide assessments as a springboard for revising teachers' practices in reading," Massachusetts's director admitted that it was not clear whether the Right to Read effort was ever supposed to change teacher practices.
In the late 1970s, school officials had plenty of reasons to believe that basic skills competency testing was no more likely to raise achievement than the Right to Read effort had been. In 1977, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) reported in a three-year, $1.8 million study for the federal Office of Education that innovative programs in schools had had no discernible effect on academic achievement over time. For example, the AIR found "no clear evidence" that levels of innovation ensured gains in reading, and it found that levels of innovation (and degrees of "individualization" in instruction) were, in fact, "negatively rather than positively related to growth in arithmetic achievement." The AIR researchers noted that their study's findings "should serve as a reminder to educators-as well as to parents and legislators-that educational innovation per se will not necessarily produce dramatic effects on student achievement." Changing teacher practices (let alone changing students' readiness for school or their environment outside of school) seemed beyond the reach of even the most carefully implemented school reform initiatives.