American Education Reform Process in Isolation

International evaluations of education policy have led to tremendous debates and sometimes even groundbreaking reforms in national education policies across Europe and beyond. In Germany, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) triggered the greatest reform process in secondary education for decades and prompted a turn toward evaluation-based education policy. In the U.S., however, education policy has constantly been under reform and unlike in Germany, international evaluations have not played any particular role. Rather, the U.S. follows the old Sinatra “I did it my way” doctrine and undertakes system reforms in isolation. What goals do current reform processes in the U.S. have? And why are such reforms carried out independently of international studies?

The U.S. has thus far participated in all of the PISA surveys. Compared to the other PISA participants, however, the U.S. is one of the countries in which student performance in the OECD’s comparative study has gone virtually unnoticed (1). Although American results have been consistently below the OECD average in all PISA surveys, hardly any reactions to PISA were noted. It was only with the publication of the PISA 2009 study in December 2010 that comparative results raised an interest within the American education policy sphere. Because Chinese students scored better than any OECD country and far better than American students, the PISA report raised awareness in the U.S. Regarding U.S. schools, however, PISA has not contributed any significant new information: the low quality of schools has long been common knowledge, and PISA only confirmed knowledge of these shortcomings rather than provoking any strong reactions.

In fact, the U.S. education system has been under constant reform processes since the 1980s when the Reagan administration appointed a national commission to investigate the progress of the education system twenty-five years after the Sputnik shock. The final report, A Nation at Risk: Imperatives for Educational Reforms (2), triggered widespread public unease over the quality of education and concern for the essentiality of evaluating schools, standards, and teachers. Viewed in this light, the U.S. had already experienced its “Bildungsshock” decades before other nations like Germany, Switzerland, or Mexico, for example, did with the PISA study (3). The shortcomings of the American school system have ultimately become an undisputed matter of fact, with the consistent implementation of many reform processes and new strategies. However, their success has been only moderate, resulting in increasing disillusion.

The current federal education act is the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002 which went into effect under the Bush administration but is supposed to be renewed under President Barack Obama soon. It authorizes several national programs to further improve the performance of American primary and secondary schools by increasing the responsibilities of federal states vis-à-vis school districts and schools themselves. In particular, it obligates federal states that apply for school sponsorship to establish assessment criteria that measure students’ basic competences for the respective level of education. However, the act avoids the establishment of a national performance standard. On the contrary, each federal state can – in accordance with the principle of school autonomy – set its own standards.

The current attitude to education reform by the Obama administration, simplified with the slogan of “Race to the Top,” would make education a more centralized and federally controlled area. President Obama calls for a fundamental revision of NCLB and suggests the implementation of national standards. The government would also like to replace the school ratings system currently based on a pass-fail scheme with a system that measures individual student progress and evaluation of schools. The envisioned system relies not only on test results but also on the use of indicators such as the number of students skipping school, graduation rates, and learning environment. The proposal demands clear intervention in failing schools but also reduces government intervention in well-administrated middle-ranking schools (4). In particular, Obama’s proposal includes funds for preschool programs, merit pay for teachers, and the establishment of more charter schools. However, these reforms have been proposed without any reference to international evaluations such as PISA.

Part of the reason why PISA is not recognized in the U.S. can be traced to the country’s educational system structure. The U.S. education system is characterized as highly decentralized and heterogeneous. Education is locally organized regarding the structure of a school and the curriculum. Institutionally, the American government has only a small voice in the education realm; the U.S. Constitution does not provide for any rights of the federal government in the field of education; this is delegated to the state level. Before 1979, the Department of Education did not even exist. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 is considered the most important federal law in the education sector (United States Federal Statute, 11 April 1965). However, it primarily controls the federal government’s expenditures for elementary and secondary schools. Therefore, there is no one U.S. education policy; rather, education is a policy field at the local level. As a result, international comparisons (and the conclusions these draw) are seen as irrelevant and inapplicable to the local U.S. context.

Summing up, since NCLB, the U.S. has aimed at introducing more standardized education goals for the whole country and increasing its resemblance to other educational systems. However, the U.S. school system has yet to remarkably improve. Moreover, the NCLB reforms, as well as the envisioned reforms under the Obama administration, have been implemented independently of the recommendations of international evaluations such as OECD’s PISA study. Whether international comparative studies will be more strongly taken into account in the future remains to be seen.


1. Michael Dobbins and Kerstin Martens, “A Contrasting Case – the U.S.A. and Its Weak Response to Internationalization Processes in Education Policy,” in Transformation of Education Policy, ed. K. Martens, A. Nagel, M. Windzio, and A. Weymann (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010).
2. National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk: Imperatives for Educational Reforms (1983), (8 December 2010).
3. Philipp Knodel et al., Das PISA-Echo: Internationale Reaktionen auf die Bildungsstudie (Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2010).
4. Sam Dillon and Tamar Lewin, (2010) “Education Chief Vies to Expand U.S. Role as Partner on Local Schools,” The New York Times, 6 June 2010, (8 December 2010).

Dr. Kerstin Martens was a Visiting Fellow at AGI in fall 2010 and previously was a DAAD/AGI Fellow.
This essay appeared in the January 14, 2011, AGI Advisor.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.