Opinion and News Analysis
Opinion: NAEP Geography: Our schools' secret success
By Michael J. Petrilli
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 who 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 27 points between 1994 and 2010; Latino
fourth graders gained 21 points. Similar progress was seen in history and
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 were in the early 1990s.
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
seventeen-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,
So why are our poor and minority students doing so much
better? NAEP doesn’t tackle these questions, 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.
We ought to be talking about how to accelerate our progress, not wringing our hands.
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 schools 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 understand what the social-studies exams are
asking—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 are “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, not 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. Poor and minority
kids are learning more, but many of their schools are minimizing free
expression, art and music, and a sense of wonder. Poor and minority kids are
learning more, but their teachers are being asked to stick to scripted lessons
and lockstep curricular guides. Poor and minority kids are learning more, but our
highest achievers are making fewer gains.
Is it worth it?
This piece originally
appeared (in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper,
Opinion: NAEP Geography: But what about the whole country?
E. Finn, Jr.
Mike isn’t wrong
when he notes with satisfaction that, on some indicators and at some grade
levels, poor and minority students in the U.S. are doing better today than they were a
decade or so back. Only a churl would say that’s not an accomplishment worthy
of notice—and some pride.
This glass is barely one-third full
(Photo by Lihn Tihn)
But the big, glum
headline over American K-12 education today is essentially the same as when we
were declared a “nation at risk” twenty-eight long years ago: Our kids on
average are woefully lacking in essential skills and knowledge across every
subject in the curriculum.
Almost all the
major trend lines are flat—at least until you decompose them by ethnicity.
Sure, it’s great that minority students have made gains, but what does that do
for our international competitiveness if the average score is unchanged or
declining? Especially in a time when many competitor nations are moving up on
some of those same metrics? And what’s the long-term payoff from early-grade
gains if scores and outcomes in high school are flat or declining? Some say the
early gains are like the pig in the python’s throat and it’ll just take time
for them to reach the tail. But we’ve had enough experience by now with
early-grade gains and high school sags to throw major doubt on that hypothesis.
We simply haven’t found—at least on a large scale—ways to sustain and build on
academic gains as youngsters move from fourth grade to twelfth. (Mike wiggles
out of this by blaming twelfth graders for not taking NAEP seriously; that may
be partly true, but isn’t any truer today than in earlier years.)
This week’s NAEP geography results (based on 2010 testing) underscore
the problem. Indeed, the National Assessment Governing Board’s own headline
says it all: “Proficiency overall remains low; lowest performers show greatest
improvement; grade 8 remains flat; grade 4 increases, while grade 12 declines
Geography, as we
know, isn’t much taught in U.S. schools, a crime in its own right. But that’s
not the only reason our kids don’t know much about it, because the geography
results parallel recent NAEP results in civics and U.S. history, both of which are taught, at least in our high
schools. Yet here’s how many of our twelfth graders are at (or above) NAEP’s “proficient”
level in those three subjects:
- Geography: 20 percent (down from 24 percent in 2001)
- U.S. History: 12 percent (level since 2006)
- Civics: 24 percent (down from 27 percent in 2006)
It takes chutzpah
to say this glass is even one-third full, much less that it’s filling. And only
a naïf would say that we’re looking toward a bright future as a self-governing
polity comprised of knowledgeable voters and discerning citizens if we’re
producing high school graduates who know this little about their world and
Critics retort that Americans—including adults—have never
known much of this sort of stuff but we’ve gotten by OK over the years as the
land of the free and the home of the brave, so not to worry. Well, I worry—and
so should you. I look at the lousy choices we’re making at the voting booth and
in statehouses, school boards, and the U.S. Capitol itself, and I see plenty to
worry about in this realm. I see colleges adding little or nothing to what
young people know in these subjects. Then I see what’s on TV (including what
passes for “news” and “analysis” these days and on the internet and in the
theaters) and I do not conclude that our national prospects are improving.
The schools, of
course, are not entirely, not even primarily, to blame for this situation.
Recent immigration patterns, for example, have flooded classrooms with foreign-born
kids who arrive with scant knowledge of America and must first struggle with
the language of the curriculum. But we’ve had immigrants before, lots of them
even. So that ought not be an excuse for long. And we do need to understand
that some of our education priorities aren’t helping at all. Why teach history
or geography, for example, if all that your school is held accountable for are
reading and math scores? Why do your homework for subjects that don’t really
count? Why fuss about whether state requirements for licensing “social studies”
teachers are light on history and oblivious to geography?
Mike can crack
open the champagne if he is so inclined. But don’t pour me more than a thimble
This piece originally
appeared (in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper,
News Analysis: The myth of the "good" school
By Michael J. Petrilli
Matthew Stewart, a
stay-at-home dad in a wealthy New Jersey suburb, is leading a battle against
the “boutique” charter schools now being planned for his community. “I’m in
favor of a quality education for everyone,” Stewart told Winnie Hu of the New
York Times. But “in suburban areas like Millburn, there’s no evidence
whatsoever that the local school district is not doing its job. So what’s the
rationale for a charter school?” Easy: Different parents define “quality
education” differently. One person’s “good school” is another person’s “bad
fit.” Stewart may love his child’s public school, which might do a dandy job
providing a straight-down-the-middle education to its (mostly affluent)
charges. But the parents developing a nearby charter school want something
more—specifically, a Mandarin-immersion experience for their kids. For this, Mr.
Stewart labels them “selfish.” Why? Because “public education is basically a
social contract—we all pool our money.” “With these charter schools,” he
explains, “people are trying to say, ‘I want a custom-tailored education for my
children, and I want you, as my neighbor, to pay for it.’” This, of course,
implies that the “selfless” thing to do is to send one’s children to a school
that’s a bad fit, or to write a check for private education. But when choice
isn’t an option, energized public school parents turn to advocacy to mold their
one-size-fits-all neighborhood school to their liking. Environmentally minded
parents push for eco-friendly cafeterias and outdoor education. Numeracy hawks
rally around Singapore math. Warm and fuzzy types press for drama classes and self-expression.
And on and on it goes. Beleaguered school boards and administrators do their
best to find some sort of golden mean but often wind up with a lowest common
denominator. Meaning that everybody settles for much less than their ideal. That’s
a “social contract” in frustration. Supporters of public education ought not
make “hey parents, suck it up” their rallying cry.
This piece originally appeared (in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.
|Click to listen to commentary on charter schools in affluent neighborhoods from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
News Analysis: Far-reaching IMPACT
D.C.’s much-discussed teacher-evaluation system,
IMPACT, is making itself felt. On Friday, 206 District teachers (about 5
percent of the instructional staff) were fired due to poor performance. Among
them, sixty-five were deemed “ineffective” (cause for immediate dismissal) and
another 141 were rated “minimally effective” for the second year in a row.
While firing any well-meaning, hard-working person can sound heartless, Gadfly
sees several reasons to celebrate. D.C.’s terminations over the past two years
mark a major milestone: the first time that teachers have been systematically,
objectively assessed—and then held to account for their performance. Not even Montgomery
County or Cincinnati
(both of which are praised for their teacher-eval systems) can boast the rigors
or consequences of IMPACT. What’s more, IMPACT has survived the Fenty-Gray
mayoral shift (and the exit of its architect, Michelle Rhee). It looks like the
evaluation system is here to stay. And the icing on this double-decker cake:
While the Washington Teachers Union is still none-too-pleased with the
evaluation system, D.C. teachers we’ve spoken with believe that IMPACT has
actually improved their teaching. (The $25,000 bonus for which top teachers are
eligible—there were 663—might have helped generate positive feelings, too.)
IMPACT’s not perfect but this work-in-progress is years ahead of yesterday’s
|Click to listen to commentary on the D.C. IMPACT-based firings from the Education Gadfly Show podcast
Mayor’s Office Live: Vincent Gray on teacher firings, council changes,” Washington Post, July 19, 2011.
than 200 D.C. teachers fired,” by Bill Turque, Washington Post, July
teacher performance evaluations are working,” by Editorial Board, Washington Post, July 15, 2011.
Review: Student Teaching: The Make or Break of Teacher Prep
By Janie Scull
The latest in a series of reports on U.S.
teacher-prep programs, this study from the National Council on Teacher Quality
dives into the murky waters of the “student-teaching” experience. This is widely
held to be the single most formative aspect of a preparation program, and often
a teacher candidate’s first real foray into the classroom. NCTQ examined the
protocols of 134 undergraduate institutions to determine which adhere to
student-teaching best practices—and which barely adhere to any practices at
all. NCTQ analyzed the length of the student-teaching experience (it should
last at least ten weeks, they say); the selection of the cooperating teacher
(they should be chosen by the prep program, not the school or district); and
the qualifications of cooperating teachers (they should have at least three
years of experience, as well as demonstrated classroom effectiveness and
mentoring ability). The findings? While all programs articulate basic student-teaching
protocols, most fail to ensure the quality of the experience. For example, only
38 percent require that the cooperating teacher possess the qualities of a good
mentor, while just 28 percent require that they be effective instructors as designated
by schools’ principals. Institutions also neglect to provide guidance and
feedback to student-teachers throughout their assignment, reducing the
experience to merely a rite of passage—an expensive one at that. And the places
that do maintain these requirements on paper rarely enforce them in practice. Ultimately,
only 7 percent of institutions boast model programs. The analysis is worth a
detailed read—both for its overall findings and for its ratings of individual
Review: Why America Needs School Choice
Private-school choice may not be the panacea
that John Chubb and Terry Moe once claimed but that’s no reason to write it off
as a means of improving America’s flailing K-12 system, explains Jay Greene in
this new broadside. As Greene asserts, “miracles shouldn’t be the standard by
which educational programs are judged.” This “panacea canard” is the first of
eight common arguments against school choice that he refutes in this fifty-one
page mini-book. He covers some arguments widely voiced in anti-choice circles
(the research doesn’t show positive effects, choice leads to segregation, etc.)
and other, less prominent rhetoric (choice distracts from other reform
initiatives like quality standards; choice undermines civic values).
Those who follow Greene’s blog won’t find tons here that’s new, but it does
provide an all-in-one treatise for the private-choice proponent. Be aware,
though, that Greene ignores a few pertinent arguments. For example, in a time
of fiscal belt-tightening, what’s
the rationale for voucher (and similar) programs that offer public dollars
to parents already enrolling their children in private schools?
Review: Roadmap for Next Generation Accountability Systems
With most states signed onto the Common Core
State Standards (CCSS) initiative, a major challenge ahead is aligning their
accountability systems with these new standards (and assessments). Toward that
end, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) has developed this
roadmap for “next-generation” accountability systems. (This is version one.) It
details eight elements, none of which will likely startle you. For example,
we’ll need clear performance objectives aligned to the standards, meaningful
differentiation of performance between districts and schools, and timely and
transparent reporting of actionable student data. Also flagged here are helpful
resources (from groups like Achieve and the U.S. Department of Labor) and state
exemplars (FL, KY, IN, and TN) for those looking to revamp their accountability
systems. Not a bad start. Thanks, chiefs.
From The Web
The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: B is for bona fides
Education Sector’s Bill Tucker joins Mike in
discussions on D.C.’s IMPACT system, charter schools in affluent communities,
and a little something we like to call “Education Reform
Idol.” Daniela goes Dutch and Chris reminds us that, when it comes to
grades, colleges make it rain As.
Click to listen to the podcast on our website. You can also download the podcast here or subscribe on iTunes here.
Flypaper's Finest: Reading is NOT fundamental: Knowledge is
By Peter Meyer
It is encouraging
news, from Sol
Stern of the Manhattan Institute, that New York City’s three-year-old pilot
project testing the content-rich Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum in ten
low-income schools has proved so far, as the Daily News headline has
it, “a brilliant experiment in reading.”…
Yet, it is discouraging that our education system
seems so blind to good ideas. As Stern writes about the Gotham experiment, “keeping
this potential breakthrough alive would cost a mere $300,000 per year—which seems
a far smarter investment than the $70 million paid in bonuses to teachers and
principals who produced zero reading gains.”…
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Flypaper's Finest: Money is not the problem, Nick
It’s funny that Nicholas Kristof compares
the education system to an escalator in his column in this weekend’s New
York Times. We know a great deal about broken escalators here in D.C.—our subway
system is full of them—and the reason they’re so often out of order has more
to do with bad management and absurd union rules than it does with resources. (Unsuck
DC Metro had an illuminating
post about this late last year.) As in public transit, so in public
education: How we spend our education dollars is an important and
widely ignored problem.…
Click to read the rest on Flypaper.
Briefly Noted: Science framework: Trick or treatise?
- The long-awaited
National Research Council framework for K-12 science education (which
Achieve and others will now transmute into potential common science standards)
has been released—all 320 pages of it. So far, Gadfly has chewed through about
twenty-three. Expect more comment once he’s digested the remaining 297.
- Big ups to Douglas
County, CO (just outside Denver)! Not only does the district win Gadfly’s “king
of choice” award, it now earns “king
of creativity.” The district is using a charter school to administer its
new district-wide voucher program.
reforms are blooming in the Garden State thanks (in part) to Chris Cerf’s green
thumb. Six months after becoming acting education commissioner, Cerf has
the state education department’s basic structure. Think we’ve got a convert
there are incentives to cheat. But there are also deterrents: Atlanta teachers
implicated in the cheating scandal have
been asked to quit—or risk getting fired.
- As programs
like Rocketship Education show us, virtual and blended learning hold
immense promise for raising student achievement and lessening the achievement
gap. But not
all cyber schools are making the grade. Tune in next week: We’re releasing
a paper on how to ensure quality in the digital learning sphere.
half of Texas’s youth are expelled
or suspended between their seventh- and twelfth-grade years. Shocking, but
not anomalous. Florida and California, among others, have even higher rates of
expulsion and out-of-school suspension.
collection is only as useful as it is transparent and accessible. Enter a new free online tool, Ed-Fi, from the Michael
and Susan Dell Foundation, to facilitate secure data exchange among disparate
collectors in the K-12 sector. Great work, guys.
- If Gadfly were the
public-education system, he’d probably have Vanilla Ice lyrics looping in his
head: “If you’ve got a problem, yo, I’ll solve it…” From mandating the teaching
history to compulsory environmentalism
in the classroom, our old habit of ascribing to schools all manner of “issues”
(over and above the hard task of teaching the basics) is alive and well.
Announcement: The most important event you'll watch all year
Ryan Seacrest has
nothing on Mike Petrilli. See for yourself on August 11, from 8:30 to 10:00AM,
as Fordham hosts “Education Reform Idol.” Representatives from Florida,
Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin will pitch their states as the
“reformiest” of the 2011 legislative season—and audience members will vote for
the winner. For a full list of contestants and judges, or to register, click here.
Announcement: Be the change
The Carnegie Corporation of New York has teamed
up with Opportunity Equation and Ashoka’s Changemakers to host an online
competition. If you know of a bold, imaginative program that brings STEM talent
into classrooms—or have an idea for one—learn more about the competition
(including how to nominate compelling programs) here.
Announcement: Shine in the Diamond State
Big things are happening on the education-reform
front in wee Delaware. Want to be a part of the action? The Delaware Department of Education needs a chief performance officer
as well as data coaches
for its partnership with Wireless Generation, and the innovative schools
corporation is searching for a director
of human capital initiatives.
Announcement: Stop! It's data time!
Ask not what data can
do for you but what you can do with data. The Strategic Data Project, based at
Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research, is looking for a manager to
coordinate the SDP fellows, backstop their projects and lead workshops. View
the full job description by going here and entering the
requisition ID: 24215BR.
Featured Fordham Publication: Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?
This 2003 Fordham report consists of penetrating
critiques by renegade social studies educators who criticize the regnant
teaching methods and curricular ideas of their field and suggest how these can
be reformed. While nearly everyone recognizes that American students don’t know
much about history, civics, and geography, these analysts probe the causes of
this ignorance—and place primary responsibility at the feet of the social
studies “establishment” itself.