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Editorial | Time for positive reinforcement in education reform

Published: Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Updated: Tuesday, March 15, 2011 07:03

President Barack Obama yesterday gave a speech outlining his desire for education reform at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Va. He announced his plans to significantly alter the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 by changing the criteria for judging schools' success as well as doing away with the 2014 deadline for academic proficiency.

No Child Left Behind, a legacy of the Bush administration, has long been hailed as a flawed policy for improving national education standards, yet few have taken steps to come up with an alternative. Obama's plan lacks specifics, but his intention to use positive reinforcement to reward public schools for their improvements — rather than threatening the loss of funding for not meeting test scores — has the potential to actually improve education in this country.

No Child Left Behind is a complex law that essentially forces public schools to meet a certain threshold when it comes to standardized testing. Schools unable to meet this standard are deemed "underperforming" and can possibly lose funding.

While the intention is to regulate the level of education across the country, the evaluation methods currently used by the policy are misguided. No Child Left Behind is essentially based on negative reinforcement, pressuring public school administrators with the threat of loss of funding if their students do not make the grade. The fear of not meeting the threshold, which is individually determined by each state, has caused many schools to become all about the numbers, caring only that their students pass a standardized test.

Education at its core is not about getting the best grades or the highest scores. It is about personal growth and learning how to deal with real-life situations in an intelligent manner. Yet many public schools across the nation have seemingly turned into factories, focused only on producing averages that fall to the right of the national bell curve. Some high schools that offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses, for example, make the AP exams at the end of the year mandatory, perhaps seeking some quantitative measure for their students' success.

Negative reinforcement detracts from the purpose of education in the end. While it will always be necessary for schools to provide some quantitative proof that their students are learning something, threatening to take away their funding if they fail is not the best form of motivation. The government could get far more productive results through positive reinforcement. By rewarding the schools that do well and offering incentives for outstanding faculty members, the government would still motivate schools to produce good results without threatening them.

Obama hopes to model his changes to No Child Left Behind after a program that does just that: Race to the Top. As its name implies, Race to the Top awards funding to states that have high achieving schools, teachers and administrators. It gives schools something to strive for — as opposed to something to run from — and provides a better way of improving educational standards.

Race to the Top is also unique in the sense that it is not entirely focused on students, but instead focuses on all parts of the school, including its staff. This is essential considering that motivated teachers and competent administrators are necessary for a successful educational experience.

No Child Left Behind's fixation on standardized test scores needs to end, and reform modeled after the Race to the Top program offers a promising way to change the way education is treated in this country. Positive reinforcement for public schools, in which funding is awarded based on academic progress rather than test scores, can bring about lasting change on a much broader scale.

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