Education in America: What’s holding us back? by Mary Beth Hertz

Part of the series: Investigating International Edtech Issues (USA)

When Shelly honored me with the opportunity to write a guest post about teaching at-risk youth in the USA, it took me a while to gather my thoughts. What could I share with the world that hasn’t already been on National television or the BBC? Slowly, I came to the conclusion that my viewpoint may be a bit skewed by the fact that I live in the USA. At the NECC conference (a gigantic conference of all things related to Educational Technology) last June, I discovered that even educators in Canada, our closest English-speaking neighbor, were fuzzy on education policies and practices in the US.US-DeptOfEducation-Seal

I currently serve as a Computer Lab teacher and Technology Teacher Leader (TTL) at a large (about 600 students) K-6th grade elementary school in West Philadelphia, PA. Our school has made AYP once since President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, which classifies us as a ‘failing school.’ If you are a bit fuzzy on this legislation and AYP, it will be addressed later in the post.

Education as the Great Equalizer

One aspect of our system that separates us from many parts of the world is the fact that education from age 6 to age 18 is free for everyone. This freedom ties in perfectly with our Democratic ideals that state that- theoretically-anyone can be anyone they want, attain anything they want and anyone can even be President. In fact, education is not only free, it’s mandatory until age 16. In addition-in theory-both girls and boys, whether black, white, green or purple, are educated equally and provided equal opportunities to achieve. As a woman, I could not imagine being denied the simple right to an education, or imagine risking my life to attend school as some girls do in countries like Afghanistan. Even famed author Frank McCourt believed, as a young man, that a good education in the US would pull him up in the world and away from his poor, troubled Irish roots. By the way, if you have not read his book Teacher Man, do it. As soon as possible.

Of course, this is all in theory.

The purpose of this post is not to pick apart the Education system in the US for all of its inequalities and shortcomings that deny many children the opportunity to succeed and achieve their dreams. For that, you should pick up a copy of Jonathan Kozol‘s revolutionary book Savage Inequalities or read his account of teaching in a Boston public school in Death at An Early Age. Reading Kozol’s books before I moved to Philadelphia in 2002 and during my early years in the public school system here prepared me more than any course at any university for what I would encounter.

This is a quick video that describes the conditions in many urban public schools.
I have blogged about racism, segregation & education and about the conditions in which my students learn here and here.

No Child Left Behind: an overview

For those of you not graced with the privilege of knowing what No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is all about, here’s a quick overview.

NCLB is a piece of legislation created by former President George W. Bush in 2001 with the goal of making drastic changes and reforms to the broken and failing American education system. The legislation has four ‘pillars’:

  • Stronger Accountability: President Bush’s main goal with NCLB was close the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their wealthier counterparts. This translates into schools being required to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in order to maintain their autonomy. Usually this AYP is decided by comparing the percentage of students scoring ‘proficient’ on state standardized tests from year to year. Should a school not achieve this stated percentage for 5 or more years, it may be restructured. As an example, my school must have 47% of our students reading at a proficient level. As of our test scores from last spring, 17% of our students currently do. If we do not make enough gains (based on the standardized test in the Spring) we may be completely restructured (again).
  • More Freedom for States and Communities: Under NCLB, state and local governments were given more control of how Federal money is distributed. Schools and districts with a large population of underserved, “disadvantaged” students can use additional money, called Title I funds, on Professional Development, after school programs, Educational Technology and other school-based or district-based needs. Most schools in Philadelphia (not all) qualify for these extra funds.
  • Proven Education Methods: President Bush felt it very important to ensure that districts and schools employ scientifically proven methods to increase student achievement. This often means that schools cannot find funding for alternative interventions unless they fit this definition. When searching for and indicating interventions for, specifically, Special Education students, teachers can only use those programs that fit the ‘scientifically proven’ classification. The result has been a huge influx of companies releasing these kinds of products and marketing them to schools. This is not to say that these programs don’t work, but it can be limiting.
  • More Choices for Parents: A new aspect of NCLB, this pillar allows parents whose children attend a low or under-performing school to transfer their child to a better school. My school is required to release a list of available schools every year where parents can choose to send their children instead of our school. By law, the district must pay for the child’s busing to their new school. The result–a failing school loses its best students and families to other schools and continues failing, and money is diverted from schools to bus companies. This pillar has also created a huge debate over the school voucher program, through which parents at failing schools can use public funds to pay for their child to attend any public or private school of their choice.

What About EdTech?

So what implications does NCLB have for educational technology and student achievement?

The accountability aspect of the legislation has placed a huge focus on standardized testing, since these are the tools for measuring AYP. The result has been a change in teaching and learning. You have probably heard the phrase “teaching to the test” a million times. Teachers often feel they don’t even have time to teach enough reading and math to prepare students for the tests, so you can imagine the stress of trying to learn a new tool or experiment with new methods of teaching in the classroom, nevermind taking the time to do Project Based Learning with technology. The biggest winners in the accountability pillar? The testing companies.

While freedom with Federal dollars has definitely help districts, this does not change anything about the gaping chasm between local funding in rural or urban schools and suburban schools. Most schools in the United States are funded through local property taxes. In states like New Jersey, with some of the highest property taxes on the East Coast, it’s no wonder that schools in that state are performing above and beyond schools in neighboring states. This is not to say that Philadelphia public schools do not have technology available to their students. There are many schools with every classroom equipped with an Interactive White Board (IWB) and many Middle/High Schools have access to laptop carts with enough computers for a whole class. Just having the technology, however, does not ensure student achievement or successful integration. “Teaching to the test” does not allow for the creativity that these tools can foster, and many teachers lack proper Professional Development for these tools due to funding and planning. Often these tools are installed or introduced with little or no training on how to use them.

Since many cutting-edge technologies and/or instructional programs have not been scientifically tested, the kinds of technologies that are used as interventions to differentiate instruction are drill-and-practice software like Read 180, Fast Forward, FASTT Math, or Quick Reads, or web-based programs like First in Math and Study Island. Many software companies have been raking in cash due to the high demand for these kinds of softwares. I often joke that “I’m in the wrong business,” because the real money is in intervention software for schools! While these programs have been proven to increase student achievement on standardized tests, they do not support technology integration into the curriculum. Many teachers mistakenly believe that they use technology in the classroom effectively just because they stick a kid on the computer to use one of these programs.

By giving parents the option to pull their child out of a failing school, it sends parents the wrong message. “Don’t try to make things better, just let the school fail and get your kid the %&# out of there!” Not only does this practice pull money away from schools to pay for busing these students, but the schools will not get better without parent involvement and advocacy. If you make it a habit to move students out and close schools, it will also burden the receiving schools with higher enrollment. In Philadelphia, our School Reform Commission (we have no School Board) and our Superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, plan to close failing schools and re-open them with all new staff. The idea is, if you continue to fail, you do not deserve Federal dollars, you deserve to close. With these kinds of clouds looming over schools’ heads, who has time to focus on technology integration and Professional Development?

Give EdTech a Chance

The worst thing about all of this? The achievement gap is not closing. Sure, test scores are going up, but do test scores prepare our students for college and/or the job market?

I worry:

  • “Will my students know how to send and receive email?”
  • “Will my students know how to create an online identity that will not damage them later in life?”
  • “Will my students have the basic word processing skills to correctly type that paper or resume?”
  • “Will my students know how to use social media to collaborate with others?”

Many of my students do not have a home computer, and many do not have an email account. They only know how to use the internet for watching videos, listening to music and playing games. My 6th graders do not know simple typing rules like using Shift to make a capital, making quotation marks or putting two spaces after a period. This lack of skills counteracts any gains that students make on standardized tests.

A teaching model that effectively integrates technology into teaching and learning can both prepare students for the real world and standardized tests to boot. Here are some examples of how technology can help close the achievement gap on standardized tests without “teaching to the test”:

  • Teaching good writing skills through quick and easy editing and publishing.
  • Teaching various reading skills through reading classmates’ blogs and comments.
  • Giving students a love for reading and writing by creating a truly authentic audience.
  • Engaging students through differentiated instruction by using various technology tools to teach to students’ strengths.
  • Engaging students with Science and Math through collaborative projects and authentic projects using real-time data.

In closing, I hope that those of you who may be from other corners of the world now have a better understanding of the American education system (for better or for worse) as well as how this system aims to help close the achievement gap among our Nation’s schools, how it has succeeded and how it has failed. In addition, I hope that you have a better understanding of how a nation with so many resources still manages to deprive many of its children with the necessary skills to succeed and compete in the global economy and in a world that is shrinking more every day.

I am proud to be a public school teacher here in Philadelphia. I am not a martyr, I am not a hero. I am, along with my esteemed colleagues, a career professional entrusted with preparing my young students for successful and fulfilling adult lives. A system as large as ours here the US will never be perfect. We must do what we can with what we have and be advocates for our children and their families.

US Dept. of Ed image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
all information about NCLB from the US Dept. of Ed website


Mary Beth Hertz has been teaching in Philadelphia, PA since 2003. She has also taught on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico and has worked with at-risk youth in Ohio. You can read more of her thoughts at her blog, Philly Teacher, and you can find her on Twitter as @mbteach.



  1. An Interesting guest post. In India a similar kind of initiative is being taken to cover all children between the age of 6 to 14 in the Education for All program. In India recently education was made a Fundamental right but India lacks that much fund to ensure free education for all. Technology has not made any breakthrough into India’s education system and in this way it lacks any challenges or has got any drive to go further. Just people become bookish without any outside knowledge or at the end of the session nothing remains inside the cerebrum. India’s primary, upper primary and high school level education is boring.

    India’s large scale poverty is the sole cause though our lack of political will or not following any fixed set of policies, of our backwardness in education. The rote learning that is the order of Indian schools just enables one to get a degree or secure good marks but fails to make a man and a negligible impact is felt in society in general.

    Really, i was enlightened by this post about the Bush govt’s initiative for the educational upliftment of the Us. Compulsory education is the real benefit to the nation.

    My reading of the day perhaps. thanks

    • @Sudam, I’m glad that you feel that the post was informative. I learned a lot from your comment, too. I know little about the Indian education system, but I do know that many Indian students come to the US and excel in our colleges and universities and in our job market.

      However, from your comment on poverty, I assume that these students represent the wealthier population in India, and that the poorer, underrepresented population do not have such opportunities.

      I actually have been quite impressed with my friends from India who have a greater knowledge of literature and politics/history than myself and my American counterparts. Perhaps, should India embrace technology integration in the classroom, it will help develop students into citizens who can make an impact and a change in society.

      Thank you for your comment!

  2. Thanks for this. I wasn’t sure of what the benefits of NCLB were. While standardizing aims to create just that – standards – it sort of plops a grid onto a system without actually changing the system. Excelence generally emerges rather differently, doesn’t it? On the other hand, there is clearly some need to figure out how to measure the quality of a school, and benchmarks for student progress. Are there alternative models out there being used in the US school system?

    Here in Germany there are various tests as students move through a variegated school system, the big test being after 4th grade when they are tested for whether they will be able to handle the academically oriented Gymnasium (5th-12th or 13th grade, depending on your location in Germany) or whether the technically oriented Realschule is the better choice (5th-10th grade) – with Hauptschule (5th-8th, 9th or 10th grade) and Sonderschule (for children with special needs) being the last resort, really. These tests are run by the Bundesländer (Bavaria, Swabia … our federal states). Each school type allows its graduates to try and enter the next higher one, so doing well in the standardized leaving exam is a gateway, opening up essential opportunities for children. I record English listening comprehension exercises for the tests given to Haupt/Realschule students in Bavaria, and they are multiple choice, so there is some standardization.

    I took the Abitur (the leaving exam for Gymnasium) at the German School in Washington. It contained aggregated grades from internal assessment by our teachers and written and oral exams that were also administered internally, but supervised by the German state. Our resulting grade wasn’t anything that could be evaluated numerically, like the SAT. I don’t think that has changed. Now, however, lots of universities are instituting their own entrance exams for skills in the target field, eg. English

    • @Anne, your description of the testing in Germany reminds me of the French system, with students trying to pass the ‘Bac’ (I may have spelled it wrong) to decided whether they will continue to a higher school of education.

      One thing I regret about our system here in the US is the sparsity of schools like your Realschule in Germany. I love that name, by the way! Too many of our students here are pushed through academically-focused middle and high schools and either drop out or fall behind because it does not fit their needs. We have vocational high schools in the US, but not enough in my opinion. We lose a lot of children to crime and the streets when they could be in a vocational school learning a trade.

      I love the idea of an assessment comprised of many parts. Here in the US, some schools and districts are working on using this kind of model–a portfolio assessment–as a way to asses student progress according to the AYP requirements. It is difficult to compete with a numerical assessment system that is so much simpler, but many educators feel that one test does not accurately assess a student’s progress or achievement.

      Thank you for sharing about the German education system, of which I know little about. It is exciting for me to learn about how other countries educate their citizens.

      • @Mary Beth Hertz, with regards to the vocational schools – in Aus we have them too, (called technical college/school) but we also have vocational ed built into the senior certificate. So students can undertake technical studies, begin an apprenticeship or traineeship and paid work whilst still completing high school. And they get points towards graduating with a high school certificate even if they don’t do as many classes at school as everyone else. It works so well for students who are not academically-minded – it gives them serious confidence in themselves and they are able to finish high school as well.

  3. What an interesting post, and good to see someone sharing their hopes and disappointments in a system they are so passionate about belonging in. As teachers, we are all fairly passionate about our jobs and the people who rely on us. It was really interesting to read about the situation in the USA and the NCLB policy – for which until now I’d heard nothing about.

    In Australia our education systems are state-run. So that means that the curriculum across states is not standard. Consequently, the state I live in typically performs lower than “standard” in testing done in grades 3, 5, 7 and 9 – purely because our students actually start school a year later than their neighbours in other states. Grading systems are different between states. Assessment techniques are different between states. Teacher input is different between states. Most of the other states issue external examinations to grade 12 students for their school certificates (similar to SATs), however in Queensland schools issue internal examinations so there is a large tendency to “teach to the test”. It is an unfortunate downside to providing opportunities for a wider choice in curriculum development for students in certain areas (often geographic location/socio-economic status/cultural difference dictates subject matter delivered to students) which is what the system in Queensland allows for.

    When I read this post, I immediately thought of the “learn or earn” system we have in place in Queensland. By law all children are required to attend school until they are 16. If they decide at 16 they no longer want to attend school, they must prove that they have gainful (paid) employment for at least 25 hours per week, or prove that they are completing some form of educational certificate/degree/diploma/etc. Or else they must remain at school until they complete grade 12 (when they are 17 or 18). In addition, the federal government provides funding to both public AND private schools, dependent on their geographic location, socio-economic demographic and population.

    With the current government, it looks as though Australia will initiate a national curriculum, and take the onus off the states. This is supposed to be implemented by 2015 for English, Maths, Science and History, and later for other subjects like Geography. As well, there is talk of paying “better-performing” teachers higher salaries. But again this is based on results of standardised tests that are created for students that follow vastly different curricula. But what is most important to note is that no one system is ever perfect. A system that works in one area may not work in another. Some people (students mostly) will benefit from one system, some will be disadvantaged. I suppose what is best for the majority is unfortunately what must be implemented. The best thing about the impending national curriculum is that there will be a large focus on IT inclusion in all subjects. So I guess there’s a win there!

    • @skorlaki1983, I LOVE the idea of a “learn or earn” system! I wonder if that would work in the US… I can imagine that budgeting in Australia is a lot different due to your smaller population. In just my district alone there are 275 schools, 16,000 teachers and over 100,000 students.

      In the US, we also have standards that vary from state to state, and grading systems that vary as well. Each state has its own form of standardized test that is aligned with that state’s standards. There has been talk of national standards, like the ones I believe England has.

      We, too, are facing the implementation of ‘performance pay’ for teachers here in the US. It has been a huge source of contention. Many educators want student progress to be evaluated by student portfolios, not standardized tests. For me, a specialist, who does not have portfolios or standardized tests, it is not clear how I would be assessed as a teacher.

      Thank you for enlightening me on the Australian system–I have learned so much from the comments on this post!

  4. Mary Beth,

    Thank you for doing this piece! You have some interesting discussions occurring! I love it! I really enjoyed how you describe the NCLB legislation because educational policy is still focused on results from standardized tests. I don’t know when the government will ever get it!

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