On New Year’s Eve, the NY Times published a lead editorial lamenting our public schools, quoting accountability hawk organizations—Achieve and the Education Trust, and blaming teachers’ unions (as usual) for what it calls The Counterfeit High School Diploma. The editorial explains that if we were to weaken standardized testing (I guess the editorial is celebrating that Congress just chose not to weaken testing in the new federal education law it passed in December.), it would be “impossible for the country to know what if anything children were learning from year to year,” and the Times once again endorses the Common Core standards as a way to ensure that students are “qualified to compete for higher-skilled jobs at companies like Boeing, Volvo and BMW.” The editorial follows a December 26th critique by reporter Motoko Rich on the quality of the high school diploma, an article that examines ACT scores of students at Berea High School in Greenville, South Carolina. All of this echoes the bemoaning of the quality of American public education that followed the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, and that set in motion the drive for more testing, more rigorous standards, and more accountability.
Diane Ravitch, the education historian who served for seven years on the National Assessment Governing Board and devoted the fifth chapter of her 2013 book, Reign of Error to explaining the role of the National Assessment of Education Progress for helping us to know what children are learning from year to year, responded promptly on her blog to the NY Times‘ recent editorial: “There is a federal testing program called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) that reports on what U.S. students are learning every other year. NAEP has been testing students since the 1970s and reporting on states and individual districts since 1992. The scores on NAEP have steadily increased until the adoption of NCLB in 2002, when progress slowed. Test score gains came to a crashing halt in 2015, as NCLB, Race to the Top, and Common Core converged….” Ravitch suggests that the recent flattening of NAEP scores reflects the failure of the very policies endorsed by the NY Times in its editorial last week.
In recent years, the federal government has added graduation rates to test scores as part of the accountability yardstick. There has been intense pressure on schools to raise test scores and on high schools to increase their rates of graduation. Lyndsey Layton, writing last month for the Washington Post, announced that High School Graduation Rate Hits All-Time High; 82 Percent Finish on Time: “The data show that every category of student—broken down by race, income, learning disabilities and whether they are English-language learners—has posted annual progress in graduation rates since 2010, when states adopted a uniform method of calculating those rates… But disparities persist. In 2013-2014, 87.2 percent of white students graduated on time, compared with 72.5 percent of African Americans and 76.3 percent of Hispanics. Asian Americans had the highest graduation rate, at 89.4 percent. The rate was 74.6 percent for low-income students, 62.6 percent for English-language learners and 63.1 percent for students with disabilities.”
We want students to be well educated, and we definitely want to ensure that more students graduate from high school. Layton quotes Arne Duncan, who explained the new graduation statistics this way: “School districts that made the greatest progress closely tracked student academic performance early, not waiting for a student to reach 11th or 12th grade before realizing there was a problem, Duncan said. ‘Many schools are focusing on the freshmen, on the first six weeks, with a laser like focus on making sure students are staying on track,’ he said.” To the degree that educators are focusing on students in the transition from middle school to high school, Duncan is correct that this must be a key strategy. Here is what researchers Lisa Abrams and Walt Haney reported in 2004: “The first major finding from our cohort progression analyses is that the rate at which students disappear between grades 9 and 10 has tripled over the last 30 years.” “These analyses have allowed us to identify grade 9 as a key valve in the education pipeline, one that is closing for many students.” (Gary Orfield, editor, Dropouts in America, chapter 8, Lisa Abrams and Walt Haney, “Accountability and the Grade 9-10 Transition: The Impact on Attrition and Retention Rates.”)
The NY Times is correct to call our attention to indicators that something is not right in our schools, even if the newspaper’s editors incorrectly diagnose the problem as low standards and not enough testing and accountability. We definitely need to be paying attention to the atrophy of NAEP scores this year. Perhaps NAEP scores reflect that we are spending less on education across America than prior to the Great Recession in 2008. Or perhaps the 2015 NAEP scores reflect that school districts, under intense federal pressure to raise test scores and graduation rates at all costs—trying to lift the floor if not the ceiling—have been drilling the most vulnerable students on the very basic reading and math skills tested under No Child Left Behind with a narrowed curriculum. Or maybe the problem is the so-called dropout-recovery programs in which students try to make up lost work through computerized instruction.
Consider some of the additional investments our society could make if we were to set out seriously to improve high school graduation rates, enrich the experience of schooling and close opportunity gaps.
We could institute enriched pre-Kindergarten to close the achievement gaps that already exist when young children begin their schooling.
We could reduce retention in grade. Holding kids back is among the most counter productive of the education reforms that have swept the nation in the past decade. David Berliner and Gene Glass explain: “Researchers have estimated that students who have repeated a grade once are 20-30% more likely to drop out of school than students of equal ability who were promoted along with their age mates. There is almost a 100% chance that students retained twice will drop out before completing high school.” (Fifty Myths and Lies about How to Make Our Schools Better, p. 97)
We could make sure all students have access to advanced courses and science labs.
Finally we could personalize learning, and I do not mean the Orwellian definition of “personalized learning”: on-line, virtual schooling in which students are said to be free to explore their own interests and make up for their deficits, but in which computers substitute for teachers. We could authentically personalize learning by investing in small classes where it would be much easier for teachers to be able to know and support every student; we could provide enough counselors and social workers to ensure personal attention for all students. We could ensure that all high schools could afford enrichments like school newspapers and debate teams and a full range of competitive sports. We could prioritize school music programs with orchestras and jazz ensembles.
In a profound article, School Reform Fails the Test: How Can Our Schools Get Better When We’ve Made Our Teachers the Problem and Not the Solution?, Mike Rose the writer and UCLA professor of education wonders: “What if reform had begun with the assumption that at least some of the answers for improvement were in the public schools themselves, that significant unrealized capacity exists in the teaching force, that even poorly performing schools employ teachers who work to the point of exhaustion to benefit their students? Imagine, then, what could happen if the astronomical amount of money and human resources that went into the past decade’s vast machinery of high states testing… had gone into a high-quality, widely distributed program of professional development. I don’t mean the quick-hit, half-day events that teachers endure, but serious, extended engagement of the kind offered by the National Science Foundation and the National Writing Project…. Imagine as well that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success. All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have a direct link to local health and service agencies… Extra tutoring would be provided… Schools would be funded to stay open late, providing academic and recreational activities for their students.”
Worrying about the quality of every student’s experience at school is far more important than worrying about the quality of the diploma. It is also stunningly clear in the disparities in high school graduation rates reported by Lyndsey Layton that our society must address the disparities in opportunity across racial and ethnic groups and between wealthy and poor students.