The Ends of Education Reform

Diane Ravitch’s New York Times op-ed seems to have stuck in the craw of many a reformer, including Arne Duncan himself. What really burned people up was Ravitch’s “straw man” arguments: that reformers say poverty doesn’t matter, or only care about gains in student achievement. “No serious reformer says accountability should just be based on test scores. We all favor multiple measures,” Jon Schnur* complained to Jonathan Alter last week.

Please. Remember the old adage, watch what we do, not what we say? The No Child Left Behind act is still the law of the land, and it most definitely rests on the principle that poverty is “no excuse” for low achievement. And it absolutely punishes schools for bad test scores alone. Diane is on firm ground when she writes:

Educators know that 100 percent proficiency is impossible, given the enormous variation among students and the impact of family income on academic performance. Nevertheless, some politicians believe that the right combination of incentives and punishments will produce dramatic improvement. Anyone who objects to this utopian mandate, they maintain, is just making an excuse for low expectations and bad teachers.

Rather than get defensive at Diane’s defeatism, we reformers should clarify the ends that education reform can achieve. If not 100 percent proficiency,** then what?

Try this exercise. This fall, about 1 million poor children will enroll in Kindergarten in the U.S. The vast majority of them live in single-parent families headed by women in the late teens or early twenties. Most of their mothers dropped out of high school; most of their fathers are nowhere to be seen. Most live in urban or rural communities hit hard by the recession where unemployment, addiction, and violence are commonplace.

Still, not everything is bleak. Almost all of these children participated in some form of pre-school program, though the quality varied dramatically. Many were in Head Start; others in church-based or community-based programs. They generally have access to basic health-care and, thanks to food stamps, basic nutrition.

Now, try to “see like a state” and play policymaker. When designing a school accountability system, what should its objectives be with respect to these 1 million children? On one extreme, you might expect them all to be catapulted into the middle class between the ages of 5 and 22. First, the k-12 system should prepare them for the rigors of a 4-year-college experience, and then higher education should get them across the finish line and to the promised land. No excuses!

On the other extreme, you might merely expect them to do no worse than their own mothers did. You don’t want to see the graduation rate go down, or test scores fall, or teen pregnancy rates climb. But you accept that, as long as poverty remains entrenched, a steady-state on student outcomes is all we can expect.

I would bet that your own views fall somewhere in between. You acknowledge–privately at least–that it’s unrealistic to expect all kids growing up in poverty to be able to “beat the odds” and graduate from college. (That’s why we call them odds.) You recognize that for most middle-class families, the path from poverty to prosperity was a multi-generational journey.

But you also believe in the promise of social mobility, and can point to examples of schools–even mediocre ones–that have helped some kids escape the ghetto or the barrio or the reservation. To accept the status quo is to accept perpetual injustice for decades to come.

So let’s get specific. Assuming that these 1 million kids remain poor over the next 12 years, what outcomes would indicate “success” for education reform? Right now the high school graduation rate in poor districts is generally about 50 percent. What if we moved that to 60 percent? Right now the reading proficiency rate for 12th graders with parents who dropped out of high school is 17 percent. What if we moved that to 25 percent? The same rate for math is 8 percent. What if we moved that to 15 percent?

To my eye, these are stretch goals–challenging but attainable. Yet to adopt them would mean to expect about 400,000 Kindergarteners not to graduate from high school 12 years from now. And of the 600,000 that do graduate, we would expect only 150,000 to reach proficiency in reading (25 percent) and just 90,000 of them to be proficient in math (15 percent).

90,000 out of 1 million doesn’t sound so good, but without improving our graduation or proficiency rates for these children, we’d only be taking about 40,000 kids. So these modest improvements would mean twice as many poor children making it–9 percent instead of 4 percent.

And what about the other 91 percent of our Kindergarteners? We don’t want to write them off, so what goals would be appropriate for them? Getting more of them to the “basic” level on NAEP? Preparing them for decent-paying jobs instead of the lowest-paid jobs? Driving down the teen pregnancy rate? Lowering the incarceration rate?

Is this making you uncomfortable? Good. If we are to get beyond the “100 percent proficiency” or “all students college and career ready” rhetoric, these are the conversations we need to have. And if we’re not willing to do so, don’t complain when Diane Ravitch and her armies of angry teachers complain that we are asking them to perform miracles.

-Mike Petrilli

* Jon emailed me to say that his quote was taken out of context; he was commenting on teacher evaluation, not school accountability. Furthermore, he published a Denver Post op-ed this weekend in response to Diane’s essay that is well worth a read and depicts his full views on the subject.

**Yes, I know, NCLB doesn’t actually require 100 percent of kids to get to proficiency, once you consider the excepts for some special ed students and once you bake in the safe harbor provision. But those are just wonky details; the rhetoric has always been about getting “all” students across the “proficiency” line.

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