Friday, April 29, 2016

The Scores Are In: School Reformers Earn F's

Test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called “the Nation’s Report Card,” are out again this month. And now we know. Now we know what happens when arrogant reformers set out to improve the nation’s schools, contributing only hot air—their opinions—their plans—their pontificating—but not their deeds. (These people don’t teach. They talk. They talk and talk and talk.)

Now we know what happens when people who feel they’re too important to actually work with children bulldoze millions of front line educators who do. We know what happens when they insist on spending billions on standardized testing, because they believe the key to improving learning outcomes is piling up data.

Well, the data is in and reformers score a big red “F.”

More on the damning data later. First, the background: We are now deep into the second decade of misguided education reform. And the basic premise of all this reform has never changed. Men and women like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, billionaire Bill Gates and Wendy Kopp of Teach for America decided if front line teachers and administrators could be punished enough then student test scores would soar. These reformers and their political allies were positive. If teacher pay was tied to test results, if unions were crushed, if tenure could be denied to every man, woman and beast, scores would surge!

In fact, the fundamental premise of all this reforming could be reduced to one balloon filled with hot air. It wasn’t quite as blunt as Shakespeare—to paraphrase: “First thing we do, let’s kill all the teachers.” Still, it was close.

First, Congress passed No Child Left Behind, offering up a promise that all children would be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Congress did nothing to help children achieve these goals, but made sure, if children didn’t, educator’s heads would roll. The states followed suit, passing hundreds of laws designed to hold teachers “accountable.” (More educators’ heads were meant to roll.) Secretary Duncan put it simply. “It’s all about the talent,” he said. It was all about teachers. Everything would be great—if only we had better teachers and administrators in our schools.

Today, it’s time to consider what fruits the reformers produced. We know Congress was forced to rewrite No Child Left Behind, which failed in epic fashion. We know giant testing companies walked away with billions of dollars. Even the boldest reformers were obliged to admit that tests tied to No Child Left Behind produced slim results. Yet, they never blinked. They blamed front line educators for the failure of their great plans. They insisted grandiose schemes would work if only testing companies tried again. The companies should start over, come up with new tests, gather new data, and yet more heads would roll.

True. Here and there, reformers could point to gains, however spurious they proved to be. Yes. Reading and math scores at the third and eighth grade levels rose. (That’s pretty much what any real teacher would expect if you pummeled school children with test prep lessons for weeks on end every year.) Also true: high school graduation rates improved. Yet, as we will see, the new graduates seemed to know less than the old graduates did, in days when educators were free to do as they saw fit.

Meanwhile, years of abuse served to demoralize the men and women who were truly devoting their lives to helping children. Instead of more resources, they got paperwork to complete. Every teacher, every counselor, psychologist and principal knew the added paperwork ate away at the time they had to help children. In many schools, particularly low-income communities, teachers were required to read scripts—a joyless approach—to prove they were actually teaching.

Reformers and politicians claimed it would help if state and federal bureaucrats had more data. This data would then confirm what they believed: Most teachers were terrible. The data would prove America’s educators deserved to be shot, broken on racks, or run over by school buses. What really happened, of course, was that millions of teachers and administrators, all the excellent ones, and all the good ones—the kind who predominate in every school—ended up wasting days and weeks filling out forms and checking boxes.

Unfortunately, real learning, which is like chess, was stunted or curtailed. The “game” of learning was reduced to tic-tac-toe.

Now we learn that only sour fruit can grow in sour soil. Educators were admonished and threatened. You had better play tic-tac-toe. If you know what’s good for you, you had best forgo any thought of chess. Within narrow limits, then, test scores did improve. In a broader sense, reform failed completely. If anyone cared to look, they might have seen that ACT scores, which measure readiness of high school graduates to do college-level work, didn’t budge at all. SAT scores, proof of what fruits reform had grown, declined slowly but steadily every year.

Now we have fresh data from NAEP. We have the data we need to measure the reformers’ success. It is now possible to say, conclusively, that these egotistical fools have earned an “F” for meddling in the schools.

Scores from NAEP are out again for 2015. Did they soar? Did they surge? Were the latest NAEP scores swell?

Not at all! Averages in both reading and math declined, compared to 2013, the last time NAEP gave its tests. Worse, the percentage of students ready for college-level work dropped. In 2013, 39 percent were ready for college-level math, 38 percent for college-level reading. Last year scores dipped to 37 percent in both areas. Worst of all, students at the bottom, clustered in low-income schools, the kind of young people that reformers swore they knew how to save, suffered most from being force fed years of test preparation. The number of students scoring below “basic” in both reading and math increased from 2013.

In other words, tens of billions of dollars had been devoted to massive school reform. Most of the money went to testing companies, company executives, or passed through lobbyist’s hands to self-serving politicians, or to school reform experts who gave high-priced speeches, and to pay bureaucrats to gather, tally and study all the data.

What happened in real classrooms across the land? Hundreds of millions of hours of teachers’ and students’ time was totally wasted on test preparation. More hundreds of millions of hours had to be devoted to bubbling in answers or filling out forms.

Yet, scores didn’t surge.

Scores were stagnant. Or worse. On the NAEP tests, seniors scored an average of 152 in math (out of 300) in 2015. In 2005, the average was 150. All those insults hurled at educators, all those heads that rolled, all those bold plans, all those big words from people who only talked, never taught, all those hours of testing crammed down the throats of children, and all we had to show for it was an improvement of two measly points.

Ah, but it was far worse!

In 2015 the average American high school senior scored 287 (out of 500) on the reading portion of the NAEP tests. That was down five points, from 287 in 1992.

Fifteen years wasted—and almost nothing has been done to help children who suffer most outside of school, those, in turn, who struggle most in any classroom. In fact, reformers have argued that what happens outside of schools doesn’t matter—have insisted educators who claim it does (because it does) are making “excuses.” Certainly, the politicians failed miserably, as they often do. Rather than help the youth of the nation, they passed legislation which served to stifle the joys of learning. The reformers and the politicians made the jobs of educators harder and made the school days of children much, much worse.

Today, the grades are in: “F’s” across the board for the reformers and their pals.




Read what a few reviewers have said so far.

Front cover.

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