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 AOL.com, 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.)