Montessori, Dewey, & Aristotle Respond to NAEP decline

By now you know about the disappointing scores on what is widely known as The Nation’s Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.  Basically, what was called ‘a lost decade‘ a year or two ago has continued.

Here’s a short summary from the NAEP announcement: “Average reading scores for the nation in 2019 were lower for students in both fourth and eighth grade than in 2017, while average mathematics scores were higher by 1 point for fourth graders and lower by 1 point for eighth graders…….In mathematics and reading for both grades, a little more than one-third of students nationally scored at or above the NAEP Proficient level in 2019.”

The responses from the Administration, the center-right, and the left were not surprising.  Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos labelled it a ‘student achievement crisis’ and issued a call for ‘education freedom’ for parents so they could escape failing schools.  See here for her response and here for analysis.

The center-right, basically the ‘School Reform’ advocates who have controlled the public education for 20 years, focused on the smattering of good news in the NAEP report:

       Hispanic students had a higher average mathematics score in 2019 compared to 2017.

       Fourth grade mathematics scores increased in nine states.

       Mississippi showed an increase in grade 4 reading.

       Grade 8 reading scores increased in the District of Columbia.

This could be presented another way, of course: Mississippi was the ONLY state where 4th grade reading scores increased, and DC was the ONLY place where 8th grade reading scores improved.

(My aside: The decline in NAEP reading scores is shameful, given that the so-called ‘reading wars’ were settled years ago. That phonics and phonemic awareness are essential was proven in 1967 by Dr. Jeanne Chall of Harvard.  And yet, reading instruction is woeful in many classrooms largely because those teachers were not taught how to teach the skill.  If you haven’t experienced Emily Hanford’s brilliant reporting on this topic, please do so now.  She absolutely nails it in “At a Loss for Words: How a Flawed Idea Is Teaching Millions of Kids to be Poor Readers,” revealing both causes and cures.)

The left‘s response so far has been mixed.  To some, the NAEP results prove the folly of  the “corporate reform agenda” of high stakes testing and charter school expansion.  Others say the results show schools need smaller classes, more counseling, improved facilities, and better teacher training.

Those are responses in the heat of the moment. What about a longer view? What would real experts say about the continuing disappointing NEAP scores? To find out, I reached out to Aristotle, Maria Montessori, and John Dewey.

Professor Dewey was brief and to the point in his Snapchat response to my question about testing and test-prep: “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” 

I pushed back.  Doesn’t knowledge matter? Isn’t it important for students to be able to answer questions correctly, I asked?   His response was immediate: “Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.”

Had Professor Dewey heard about the cuts in school arts programs, I wondered? Again he responded immediately: “Art is the most effective mode of communications that exists.”

Not surprisingly, Dr. Montessori focused on how children spend their time, arguing for giving them more control over their activities.  In an email (she still uses, by the way), she wrote, “When you have solved the problem of controlling the attention of the child, you have solved the entire problem of its education.”   She went on, “The greatest sign of success for a teacher…is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.'”  

The ever-generous Aristotle sent the following text message:  “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”  Succinct and to the point–as we have come to expect from the Greek philosopher.  I infer from his comment that, because our children are spending lots of time taking tests and prepping for tests, their cognitive faculties are not developing.

I agree with those three wise people. Our national obsession with scores on multiple-choice bubble tests is doing incalculable damage to millions of students.  While this did not start with the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), that misguided legislation jump-started the crisis.  Under pressure to avoid having their schools labelled ‘failing’ for not making what the law called ‘adequate yearly progress,’ educators focused their energies on raising test scores–by whatever means necessary.  That meant lots of test-prep, known as ‘drill and kill,’ and in too many instances, outright cheating by adults.  See here and here for more about this.

In order to devote more time to testing and test-prep, educators had to cut something. Sadly but predictably, they most often slashed art, music, drama, and recess, arguably the stuff that kids enjoy most!  See here and here.   Here’s a sample quote from one analysis about how the curriculum has been distorted: “Five years into NCLB, researchers found that 62 percent of a nationally representative sample of all districts in the United States—and 75 percent of districts with at least one school identified as needing improvement—increased the amount of time spent on language arts and math in elementary schools. These increases were substantial: a 47 percent increase in language arts and a 37 percent increase in math. Correspondingly, these districts decreased time allotted to other subjects and activities, including science, social studies, art, music, physical education, and recess.”  (my emphasis)

The answer to what ails us is simple….but it won’t be easy.  We need educators to look at each child and ask “How is this child intelligent?” instead of testing to find out ‘How intelligent is this kid?”

While that may sound radical, that’s actually what parents seek to know about their own children, and it’s within the reach of our institutions…if we are willing to break our bad habits.  Frankly, we cannot afford not to change!

(I write about how to do this in Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.)

9 thoughts on “Montessori, Dewey, & Aristotle Respond to NAEP decline

  1. And heaven forbid kids learn to think. All these great thoughts, given the time, are worthy of a response. Someone should write a book about them. Wait A minute, I did! Stop Politically Driven Education. For those who are able to remove their head from their backside and think. The rest can chase their tails trying to force all kids into a standardized box full of word games and math riddles


  2. I wonder how much of the NAEP disappointment is due to a mismatch between the test and what (and how) is taught. Are kids not learning math? Or are they not learning to perform well on the NAEP? I suspect it is both, but more of the latter.


  3. To be clear at the beginning I am an advocate of what Ted Kolderie refers to as the “Split Screen Strategy.” Meaning we need to both improve what we are currently doing (the big screen on your TV) while at the same time we research new models in the “small screen” up in the corner of your TV. It’s not one or the other…it’s both.

    But I digress. I agree that NAEP provides valid and reliable data. However, before we draw conclusions from the data we need to first need to ask, “What is the question we are gathering these data trying to help answer?” I suggest have not asked that question or if we have, we don’t post it along with the data provided by NAEP. Let’s do a quick analogy. Let’s say that the country has just done a physical fitness exam. The headlines read, “Percent of kids who can jump over the 6 feet high bar dropped by 1% and overall it remains flat for the past 20 years. Would the reader say, “That’s terrible. All kids should be able to jump over a six foot high bar.” What if we first asked what question we were trying to answer. We might say, “We are trying to find young people who are college high jump material. So let’s ask, “We want to know what percent of students are college level high jump material. We are going to have a stratified random sample do high jumps to see how many can jump over a bar five feet high which physically most can’t do.” Would we be up in arms when learning that about 30 percent or less could jump five feet? Ok now go to reading and math. Right now we are gathering data not knowing what the question is. Oh we use terms like “proficiency” but most don’t know what that really means. So what if we said, “We want to know what percent of students are on track to be ready to do the work at a four-year liberal arts college.” Then we administer NAEP. And with the NAEP data, we conclude that 40 percent are four-year liberal arts college ready. Is that a surprise? Well I don’t know but I believe the NAEP definition of “proficiency” is about at the 65th percentile meaning about 35 percent will be proficient. I may be a bit off on the psychometrics but my point is we are gathering data, drawing conclusions…but not clearly asking the question we are wanting the data to answer. In Minnesota we pride ourselves on having very high math standards…high school math standards are above Algebra II. When Minn 11th grade math data are published, everyone gets upset when 58% of the students meet the standard. Heck that is pretty darn good when 58% meet a target set at the 65th percentile! (keep in mind that by 11th grade in Minnesota, almost 20% of students have already dropped out.) But if the question asked was, “What percent of Mn 11th grade students were on target to meet the math expectations of a beginning four-year liberal arts university?” Would there be a loud cry when the answer was 58%? Should there be nashing of teeth when most kids cannot jump over a five foot bar? Should there be nashing of teeth when kids can’t jump over a five foot math bar? Once the question is clearly asked we can actually draw valid conclusions about what the data are telling us? Regarding Minnesota’s math standards I have long asked, “And why on earth do we think that the minimum math standard to graduate from high school should be higher than Algebra II? The answer is that Minnesota believes in “rigorous standards.” I agree. All students must achieve high standards…but not all in the same areas. Minnesota’s math standard is a good example. It works for no one. It is far too low for the aspiring engineer etc. and too high for most all others.

    Ok…now on to improving reading performance. Indeed the evidence-based research has answered the question about how best to teach non-readers how to read. The evidence is clear. But honestly folks, education is not a research-based profession. I taught in doctoral programs at three Minnesota universities. I’d ask students to explain the difference between evidence-based, research -based and best-practice. Most students at the University of Minnesota answered correctly but not at the other two. Not a clue. When I discuss literacy instruction today with teachers, C&I directors, principals few can discuss the research in support of the literacy curriculum being used at their school or the research in support of thevinstruction models they use. Most actually believe “Balanced Literacy” has an evidence-base body of research. Of course BL is fine with kids who know how to read…but not with kids who don’t. In the Minneapolis and Saint Paul districts we have an abysmal literacy learning record. And Balanced Literacy is thriving in every site. Of course BL is Research-based but so are pencils but that doesn’t make them better pencils than pencils with an evidence-base of research.


  4. Wonderful post, John. Thank you. The best and most cogent summary of the latest NAEP results I’ve seen.

    I have a couple of thoughts and I’m not sure what to make of them. The first is that when we get political poll results, the newspapers report a margin of error. There’s always error of two types in any sampling effort. Always. The errors can be in both sampling and measurement. NCES may have released a margin of error for each population it sampled (i.e., the national sample and each state sample), but I haven’t seen such figures in the press. My point is that if there’s a two percent sampling error in these results, it may be the case that rather than disappointing declines, not much has changed at all.

    The second is that I suspect it’s a fool’s errand to compare results over two years as though that makes a trend. How much difference can we expect every two years? It’s like pulling a plant out by the roots every 24 months to see if its growing, when it takes 12 years for the plant to reach maturity.

    I think the best trend results from NAEP are from Long-Term NAEP. As I understand it, LT-NAEP periodically gives the same (or similar) tests to today’s students as were first administered in the 1970s. LT-NAEP in reading and math has the added advantage of picking up high school results. It tests students at 9, 13, and 17. (The Main NAEP results released this week for fourth- and eighth graders have been adjusted to reflect content changes over the years.) For some inexplicable reason, NAEP’s governing board decided to stop administering LT-NAEP, the only longitudinal comparison we have, after 2012. It seems that protests from the field, including protests from the National Superintendents Roundtable, have forced the board to begin administering the long-term test again in 2020. So we should shortly see reliable long-term trends from NAEP.

    Thanks for the post. It’s a terrific summary.

    James Harvey
    National Superintendents Roundtable

    Liked by 1 person

    • Also look at which subjects are included in NAEP, which are not, and how offen pulse-taking is limited to reading and math. Too few people ask who is making decisions about the whole NAEP enterprise. Few who wring their hands about small upticks or down ticks in these test scores are even aware that NAEP tests in other subjects exisit. Art and music test, for example, have been administered, about once every decade, No trend reports are possible by age-grade levels with that schedule. Moreover, the recent tests have been limited to 8th grade only…when many students are not even enrolled in art and music classes. I worked on test items and interpretations of results from the first and second assesments in art and music.


  5. One more from Dewey —

    “How one person’s abilities compare in quantity with those of another is none of the teacher’s business. It is irrelevant to his work. What is required is that every individual shall have opportunities to employ his own powers in activities that have meaning.”

    John Dewey
    Democracy and Education, 1916

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Yes! This approach will also include each unique individual, no matter what their “difference” (think special education, cultures, etc).


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