Our Schools’ Secret Success

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

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