To See the Real Picture on NAEP, You Have to Know Where to Look

Nov 13, 2019 12:00:00 AM


It would be all too easy to see the grim headlines about the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores as the whole story of what’s happening in schools across the country. But look more closely at the numbers, because they contain a series of important lessons about what bold leadership and a sustained vision at the state and local level can do for all students. They also suggest that we should double down on having more diverse leaders at the top of our education systems to unlock even greater potential for dramatic improvements. 

[pullquote]While the nation has either remained flat or declined slightly over the last decade on NAEP, states like Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana have seen improvement.[/pullquote] And cities like Washington, D.C., and Denver are defying the national narrative as well.

Take Mississippi. Thanks in large part to the fearless leadership of State Superintendent Carey Wright, the Magnolia State posted the biggest NAEP gains in the country. Mississippi was the only state with an increase in fourth grade reading, posted the largest gains of any state in fourth grade math, and was one of only three states with an increase in eighth grade math. The scores show that leaders like Wright, a member of the board of directors for the organization where I work, Chiefs for Change, have put in place the right elements for students to succeed. 

In Washington, D.C., Louisiana and Tennessee—three places with a long-term, sustained focus on improvement from visionary leaders—math and reading scores increased at a pace four times the national average over the last decade. In fact, D.C.—which is treated as a state in some NAEP comparisons—was the only place to post an increase in eighth-grade reading. It joined Mississippi as one of only two states to make gains this year on three out of four NAEP assessments. 

Diverse Leaders Fight for Equity and Get Results for Kids 

What do these places—which lifted achievement while so many others stagnated—have in common? All have strong plans in place for students to succeed: rigorous standards that come with high-quality instructional materials and connected, cohesive professional learning supports for teachers; emphasis on teacher leadership pathways; state accountability systems aligned to those high standards; and a culture of high expectations.

They have stuck with those coherent plans in the face of political pushback. [pullquote]In all of these places, there is a clear focus on ensuring students come first and that doing what is best for students is front and center in policy decisions.[/pullquote] More importantly, equity and access are at the forefront of these decisions and are always aligned with a focus on results that ensures both academic and lifelong outcomes for all students.

What’s more, many of these places have put into action what research has long made clear: diverse teams get better results than homogenous ones. These are cities and states where women have shattered the glass ceiling and leadership teams are beginning to better reflect the students they serve. For example, just look to Denver’s homegrown teacher-to-superintendent rise of Susana Cordova. Denver saw big gains in both fourth and eighth grade math on NAEP this year and outpaced many other big cities’ performance on fourth grade reading.

A recent analysis by Chiefs for Change demonstrated that diversity is sorely lacking in the leadership of our major education systems across the country. While women make up the vast majority of the education workforce, very few women are leaders in districts and states—and even fewer are women of color. That’s not just unfair, it hurts kids by passing over educators with huge leadership potential. That’s why Chiefs for Change has committed to preparing cohorts, through our Future Chiefs program, that are at least 75% leaders of color and 50% women. We are starting to see progress there, but we have much further to go.

The news from this year’s national report card is reason to pause and think about what we are collectively doing to improve outcomes for our students. But doing right by kids means learning all the lessons we can. One is that leadership matters—and diverse leadership must be an action item for every school system in America.

Julia Rafal-Baer

Julia Rafal-Baer is the chief operating officer of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education chiefs. A former assistant commissioner at the New York State Education Department, Rafal-Baer earned a Ph.D. in education policy from the University of Cambridge, where she was a Marshall Scholar. She began her career as a special-education teacher in the Bronx.

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