A dominant narrative of the past decade and a half of education reform has been to highlight alleged persistent failures of our education system. While this tale began long ago with the Reagan Administration report A Nation at Risk, it has been put into overdrive in the era of test based accountability that began with the No Child Left Behind Act. That series of amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act mandated annual standardized testing of all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school, set a target for 100% proficiency for all students in English and mathematics, and imposed consequences for schools and districts that either failed to reach proficiency targets or failed to test all students. Under the Obama administration, the federal Department of Education has freed states from the most stringent requirements to meet those targets, but in return, states had to commit themselves to specific reforms such as the adoption of common standards, the use of standardized test data in the evaluation of teachers, and the expansion of charter schools. All of these reforms are predicated on the constantly repeated belief that our citizens at all levels are falling behind international competitors, that our future workforce lacks the skills they will need in the 21st century, and that we have paid insufficient attention to the uneven distribution of equal opportunity in our nation.
But what if we’ve gotten the entire thing wrong the whole time?
Or, perhaps to be more accurate, what if the entire picture of American public education is simply far, far more complicated that the simplistic, even opportunistic, narrative of failure we’ve been hearing since 1983? Two reports, noted in January of this year by Kay McSpadden of the Charlotte Observer, put the presumption of failure into question. The first report was released by the National Center for Educational Statistics at the USDOE and was about the results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). According to the PIRL Study, the United States does very well compared to other nations and international cities, ranking below 4 other territories (Hong Kong, Russian Federation, Finland, Singapore) and not being significantly different than 7 others (Northern Ireland-GBR, Denmark, Croatia, Chinese Taipei-CHN, Ireland, England-GBR). While PIRLS does not include all of the nations we typically see cited as outperforming the United States, the study evaluates whether or not students have learned the literacy skills likely to be taught in school, and in this category, students in the USA are doing quite well, with 56% of students achieving the “high” benchmark or greater. In fact, when poverty characteristics are taken into account, the accomplishment of US students and schools is even more impressive. Students in schools with between 10-25% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch scored 584, which is higher than the national average for top performing Singapore, a city state where roughly 1 in 10 households earns an income below the average monthly expenditure on basic needs and whose actual poverty rate may be higher. At the same time, United States students whose schools have 75% or more students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, scored 520, roughly the same as African American students, and “tied” with France, 18 places behind the U.S. average.
The PIRLS data tells us something that we’ve known for some time. United States testing data, much like United States educational funding, is tightly coupled with the poverty characteristics of the community tested. Dr. Stephen Krashen, Professor Emeritus at University of Southern California, concluded that the unspectacular scores on U.S. students on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are largely attributable to our 21% child poverty rate and the impact that has on communities and individual children. PIRLS results tell a similar story, and the persistent connection between race and poverty in America similarly explains the score gap between African American students and other ethnic groups.
The second report cited by Ms. McSpadden was released by the Horace Mann League with the National Superintendent’s Roundtable, and is titled The Iceberg Effect, An International Look at Often Overlooked Education Indicators. The report compared the United States, Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom on indicators of economic equity, social stress, support for young families, support for schools, student outcomes, and system outcomes. Perhaps most interesting is that the United States ranked next to last or last on economic equity, social stress, and support for young families, ranked fourth in support for schools and fifth in student outcomes, but then ranked first in system outcomes. In support for schools, the United States was well ranked in expenditures and class sizes, but U.S. teachers enjoy far less support than their international peers, clocking over 1000 hours in the classroom compared to the Finland and G7 average of 664 hours. Student outcomes for the United States are very high in the fourth grade assessments but are brought down overall by high school assessments, and the report notes that gaps by SES exist in all countries. Interestingly, in system outcomes, the U.S. leads the studied nations in the number of years of schooling completed, the portion of the population with high school diplomas and BA degrees, and has the largest proportion of high performing science students.
These results are actually quite astonishing when you consider the extremely low performance for the United States in indicators of economic stability and social support. We ranked the just above China in terms of economic inequality, and our communities are subject to shockingly high levels of social stress in the form of violence and premature death from violence and drug use, which studies show have long lasting impact on health and brain development. These indicators are not even offset in the U.S. by generous expenditures in support of families and children or access to preschool as we ranked only above China and below the G-7 and Finland.
One has to wonder if the individual student results would be closer to matching the U.S. system results if we had spent the past 13 years focusing on the first five indicators instead of upon test based accountability.
This is no idle speculation because since NCLB, our school system has been subjected largely to a federally imposed experiment in warped behavioral economics where first school districts and then individual teachers were incentivized by high stakes attached to standardized tests to improve themselves or be targeted, by those same test scores, for dire consequences. However, in the absence of doing much of anything else to support teachers, schools, families, or communities, the tests have ceased to be a way to monitor performance and have become an object in and of themselves. With the dominant theme of education reform being “Test – Label – Punish” we have crafted a “reform” environment that expects targets and incentives to pressure schools and teachers to close long known achievement gaps all by themselves with literally no other aspect of our political and economic infrastructure doing a thing — except close those schools and turn them over to privately run charter school operators who like to boast about their nearly miraculous test scores, but whose practices are entirely unlike what you would expect of a public education system that is designed to serve all students.
This is not a school accountability and improvement agenda so much as it is a system operating on the kind of incentive structures endemic at Enron before its collapse. Little wonder, therefore, that Kevin G. Welner and William J. Mathis of University of Colorado at Boulder called for a sharp move away from test based accountability:
The ultimate question we should be asking isn’t whether test scores are good measures of learning, whether growth modeling captures what we want it to, or even whether test scores are increasing; it is whether the overall impact of the reform approach can improve or is improving education. Boosting test scores can, as we have all learned, be accomplished in lots of different ways, some of which focus on real learning but many of which do not. An incremental increase in reading or math scores means almost nothing, particularly if children’s engagement is decreased; if test-prep comes at a substantial cost to science, civics, and the arts; and if the focus of schooling as a whole shifts from learning to testing.
The way forward is not to tinker further with failed test-based accountability mechanisms; it is to learn from the best of our knowledge. We should not give up on reaching the Promised Land of equitable educational opportunities through substantially improved schooling, but we must study our maps and plan a wise path. This calls for a fundamental rebalancing —which requires a sustained, fair, adequate and equitable investment in all our children sufficient to provide them their educational birthright, and an evaluation system that focuses on the quality of the educational opportunities we provide to all of our children. As a nation, we made our greatest progress when we invested in all our children and in our society.
This call is incredibly important in no small part because education “reformers” are correct in one critical observation about American education even if their solutions are poorly constructed. Educational opportunity is not evenly distributed in America in no small part because the known impacts of poverty on children tend to concentrated in specific zip codes due to rising levels of income segregation. The upshot of this is that a school which serves a discernible number of children in poverty will tend to serve a large percentage of children in poverty while schools with students from economic advantage will have almost none. We do not need standardized test based accountability to tell us that outcomes are different in Mt. Vernon than in Scarsdale, but we should demand action.
If not testing, labeling, and punishing, then what? First, we have to recognize that community conditions directly impact schools, and if we expect schools to provide access to opportunities for their students, then we, as a society, need to accept responsibility for the lack of opportunities in many of our communities. 51% of today’s school children qualify for free or reduced lunch, meaning their families subsist 185% of the Federal Poverty Level or less, so I take it as a given that economic opportunities are not as abundant as they ought to be.
Second, we should recognize the support and capacity building we have completely failed to provide for schools by placing our focus on testing as more than system monitoring. What could have been done differently if we had taken a different focus?
- What if we had finally fulfilled federal promises to fund the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act at 40% of average cost which has never been done?
- What if we had taken seriously the 25% of schools with more than half of students eligible for free or reduced lunch that have physical facilities rated “fair” or “poor” and pledged to invest in school capital improvement needs across the nation estimated at $197 billion?
- What if we had spent ten years expanding early childhood services and support for families?
- What if we had pledged to get full wrap around services into all Title 1 schools?
- What if we had recognized that working with high concentrations of high risk students requires a genuine commitment to resources and capacity building which has been nearly completely absent in the age of test based accountability?
By most measures, the past 14 years have been a completely wasted opportunity (except for the private charter school advocates who have been monetizing their school model and the corporations that have profited from testing). It is time to stop. It is time to make a commitment to education that is equal to the soaring rhetoric reformers have lavished upon testing.