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Achievement Gap

Beware of NAEP Theories and Look for Courage in American Education

Amidst all the theories around the recent release of National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test scores showing little progress and persistent achievement gaps, is a sad but irrefutable truth. Reform is hard work and results only follow where courage and resources are applied.

What About Common Core?

Some folks want to blame Common Core but it’s way too soon for that. States are still ramping up to the higher standards. Few have dedicated the needed resources to fully update curriculum and classroom materials and train teachers. Moreover, all of today’s eighth-graders and many of today’s fourth-graders did not start kindergarten with Common Core standards. Some still haven’t. It’s also far from clear how many schools and classrooms are faithfully teaching to the higher standards. Studies show that low expectations prevail in schools serving low-income kids, so even places with the standards may not actually be teaching to them.

What About Testing and Accountability?

Some folks also want to blame test-based accountability. But, if that’s true, then how do they explain the NAEP gains during the 1990s when testing at scale began and especially the 2000s when No Child Left Behind was in full force? I fully support accountability based on student achievement and other indicators, but no one really knows if it drives NAEP results. And how many schools faced truly consequential accountability in the Bush-Obama years? Five percent? At most? Sure, the law created public pressure to improve due to the transparency requirements around testing and achievement gaps, and there were required interventions. But, federal funds were never withheld because of low performance. If anything, it was the opposite. Low performance tends to draw added resources. Some even argue we reward failure when kids would be better off leaving struggling schools. But, closing schools and sending kids elsewhere is not an option in many places. For most schools, the only practical and humane intervention is to provide more resources tied to meaningful reforms—carrots rather than sticks.

What About School Choice?

Some school choice opponents also think that forcing competition on an underfunded public education monopoly isn’t helpful. Today, about one in six K-12 students attend private schools, public charter schools or they are home-schooled. Let’s also remember the much more common version of school choice—in which parents of means move to well-resourced communities or game their way into the few high-quality schools in large urban districts. The fact is, choice is in our DNA, it’s not going away, and getting rid of it will not suddenly make all kids smarter.

What About Funding?

Another theory for the flat scores is about funding—which remains grossly inequitable and often inadequate. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 29 states were funding at pre-recession (2008) levels in 2015. Striking teachers in West Virginia, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kentucky show that it remains a problem today. But funding alone does not explain much. Many schools in well-funded districts like New Jersey, New York, Boston and Washington, D.C., get dismal results. Many schools in modestly-funded districts do quite well. While dollars are mismanaged, in some cases, the answer is not to take money away but change the way it is spent. More important, we need to shift more resources to the neediest schools instead of the wealthiest, which happens in very few places.

What About Politics?

And, of course, there’s politics. As early as 2013, Republican senators were whining about a “national school board,” provocateurs were ginning up opposition to high standards with hysterical talk about “brainwashing” and teachers unions were equating the use of test scores in evaluating teachers as “teacher-bashing.” When reform is so casually and cravenly mischaracterized, it’s no wonder some reformers feel besieged and retreat. Today, conservatives increasingly dismiss accountability while progressives increasingly oppose school choice, even though low-income Blacks and Latinos make up the majority of charter school students. Both sides have defaulted to local control as the panacea. The seductive call to weaken the federal role and hand back all the power to states and districts requires collective amnesia about the extreme inequity and mediocrity across the American education landscape. Absent pressure from the top, most states and districts do not improve. That’s why civil rights groups recently complained to Congress that the Trump administration is approving weak state accountability plans.

Who’s Got What It Takes?

So, here we are in 2018 looking at flat test scores and wondering why. It’s absolutely fair and needed to ask whether specific policies at the federal or state level are good or bad, but the deeper question is this: How many education leaders have the political support and the resources to implement anything bold, regardless of the policy? The reality is that many school superintendents are under the thumb of change-wary school boards or under fire from reform-resistant teachers unions. It’s increasingly difficult to find anyone to take the job and most last only a few years. With some exceptions, the superintendents and state chiefs who survive longest tend to be the least disruptive. As always, those with the most at stake, the parents and students, are mostly missing from the debate. When asked what they want, however, parents say they want an education that prepares their kids for life after high school. Their hopes and dreams have not changed but the NAEP results raise a question: Does the education community have the courage to make those dreams come true?
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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