Our Schools’ Secret Success

By 07/20/2011

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Here’s a new problem facing American education policy: Something we’re doing seems to be working.

You wouldn’t know it from the “we’re all going to hell in a hand basket” rhetoric surrounding today’s education debates, but the last fifteen years have seen tremendous progress for poor, minority, and low-achieving students—the very children that have been the focus of two decades of reform. Curiously, both sides of the education battle want to sweep this news under the carpet.

First the facts. In both the “basic skills” of reading and math, and in the social studies subjects of history, civics, and now geography, African-American, Latino, and low-income fourth- and eighth-graders have posted huge gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) since the early 1990s. For instance, between 1990 and 2009, black fourth graders made 35 points of progress on the mathematics NAEP exam; black eighth-graders gained 24 points. The corresponding numbers for Latino children were 28 and 21 points respectively. In reading, black fourth-graders gained 13 points between 1992 and 2009; black eighth graders gained 9 points. In the just-released geography exam, black fourth-grade students gained 28 points between 1994 and 2010; Latino fourth-graders gained 21 points. Similar progress was seen in history and civics.

To put this in perspective, 10 points is roughly equivalent to a grade level on the NAEP. So today’s poor and minority students are achieving one, two, and sometimes three grade levels higher than their counterparts in the early 1990s were.

To be fair, these gains have not been carried through to the twelfth grade. Nobody knows why that is, but it’s likely that today’s 17-year-olds aren’t making much effort on the NAEP, a no-stakes test.

Furthermore, achievement gaps aren’t necessarily closing, or closing very fast. But that’s because white and middle-class students are making gains too—which is good news, not bad.

So why are our poor and minority students doing so much better? NAEP doesn’t provide answers, so we’re forced to speculate. Maybe the progress is mostly due to societal trends, such as the end of the crack cocaine epidemic or benefits of a strong 1990s economy—both of which would have made the home environments of our neediest children much more hospitable. Perhaps the big increase in education spending over this time period deserves credit, or the major reduction in class sizes.

The most likely explanation, though, is the one that everyone loves to hate: Standardized testing and the “consequential accountability” (in Sandy Kress’s words) that is now linked to it. As research by Eric Hanushek, Tom Dee, Brian Jacob, and others has shown, the “early adopter” accountability states made big gains in reading and math in the 1990s after embracing these policies, and the stragglers made big progress once No Child Left Behind forced them to follow suit. A focus on scientifically-based reading instruction—including the now defunct Reading First program—probably played an important role too.

And what about history, civics, and geography? Neither NCLB nor most state accountability systems hold school accountable for teaching those critical subjects. Yet we’re seeing big gains nonetheless. Again, the likeliest explanation is the simplest: Poor and minority kids are stronger readers now, so they can better read the social studies exams and answer more questions correctly. And, more importantly, they can access history, civics, and geography texts more confidently than before.

No, I can’t prove any of this, but these hypotheses strike me as the most plausible. And if we accept as true that testing and accountability is “working”—at least in improving student learning for the neediest kids—the education reform conversation ought to shift. We ought to be talking about how to accelerate our progress, rather than wringing our hands. And we ought to be talking about whether the benefits of testing and accountability are worth the downsides. We ought to be talking about trade-offs.

Poor and minority kids are learning more, but there are also allegations of rampant cheating in some school districts. Is it worth it? Poor and minority kids are learning more, but many of their schools are minimizing free expression, art and music, and a sense of wonder. Is it worth it? Poor and minority kids are learning more, but their teachers are being asked to stick to scripted lessons and lockstep curricular guides. Is it worth it? Poor and minority kids are learning more, but their more affluent, higher-achieving peers are making fewer gains. Is it worth it?

So what do you think? Poor and minority kids are learning more. Is it worth it?

-Mike Petrilli

Comment on this article
  • TheFrustratedTeacher (@tfteacher) says:

    Or the focus of learning has been on tests and the curriculum has been so narrowed as to allow for the laser-like focus on imporving reading test results.

    I mean, since we’re just taking shots in the dark.

  • @WillEhrenfeld says:

    If we aren’t narrowing the achievement gap, isn’t all this talk of “progress” relative nonsense? Tests change, definitions of “grade level” and proficiency change all the time, so a 9 point rise in scores is pretty meaningless to me.

    Plus, since lower income and majority minority districts and schools have been hit harder by accountability measures based on high-stakes testing…shouldn’t the achievement gap be shrinking? Based on this logic, at least…

  • Jim says:

    One thing that standardized tests can do quite well is measure reading skills, particularly in grades 3-6. If a student does well on those tests, it is because the student is at or above grade level on key reading skills. One can only hope that the teacher has been “teaching to the test”, because those are the skills that lead to reading proficiency. One can doubt the relevance of some standardized tests covering more complex topics in higher grades, but reading skills are simply not that hard to measure. If more students are becoming proficient readers and reaching that important stage of “reading to learn”, their progress will be reflected in more gains in the subjects that require reading proficiency to succeed (i.e. most academic topics). Teachers have known for years that reading is the gateway to academic success. It’s not suprising that when schools focus on literacy (even to the exclusion of other subjects), and use more research-validated approaches, that student reading scores would improve.

  • Jeremy says:

    Of course its worth it! Michael, I wish we would go further, and not spend another 5 years contemplating trade offs, but rather, begin the tough work of determining which districts in our public system (now that we have some actionable data after over a decade) need more consequential accountability measures and which merit less.

    This task is the next step of our system, and the longer we argue about the very existence of testing, which in the most improved districts in the world are accepted and embraced as standard quid pro quo, the longer we spin our wheels instead of gaining traction in the global effort to educate children at higher levels.

    I say this because the academic gains tied to accountability and transparency measures speak for themselves, although not as definitively as critics nor supporters hoped due to diversity of tests (think NCLB state assessments, which the NAEP, thank god, clears up so leaders understand their gains/losses in a universal sense). Despite these drawbacks, which are par for the course in implementing a confusing array of state-originated assessment systems across over 100K schools and 50 million enrolled students, testing is giving us an incisive, data-rich understanding of where we stand and how far we need to go. It is less a topic of trade offs, but rather premises. We have the premises in place, now how do we leverage them.

    Leading reports ( http://bit.ly/lLd2tK ) indicate that lower performing parts of a large system must have in place more prescriptive practices (in reference to scripted lessons, normalized curriculum, and greater testing frequency etc) while the higher performing districts warrant greater latitude in these areas, and further concentration upon sophisticated measures to raise the bar for teacher performance and collaborative PD.

    So again, let’s leave the debate of trade offs in the last decade where it belongs, along with those using it as a red herring, eg the Ravitch’s etc. What we need to be considering is what phase of improvement are districts in (by using standardized longitudinal assessments!) and what concomitant strategies need to be seized to catapult academic gains.

  • […] intrigued by those pundits who would point out that perhaps outcomes of low-income children have improved over the past few decades and that the improvement is entirely attributable to increased accountability measures (when the […]

  • […] folks such as No Child Left Behind Act mastermind Sandy Kress have pointed out (and Mike Petrilli has admitted), the focus on achievement gaps has helped push the very systemic reforms — from subjecting […]

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