John White is the Louisiana state superintendent of education and board chair of Chiefs for Change, an education policy advocacy network.
On the extremes of the right and the left, there is a growing desire to discredit a generation of progress in American public schools.
Critics have adopted a “nothing works” stance: The previous four presidents, the story goes, have advocated higher learning standards, tests that measure whether students met those standards and an expectation of action based on results. Yet, these critics assert, there’s been no progress. Therefore, standards, tests, accountability systems and a generation of new schools dedicated to serving the poor must not have worked.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos picked up this thread in a speech last month, assailing “federally imposed tests,” “state mandates,” “centralized control” and “top-down reform.”
“The results we all work for,” she said, “haven’t been achieved.”
This line of thinking is problematic for three reasons. First, it’s inaccurate to claim that there’s been little progress since the Reagan administration’s seminal report “A Nation at Risk.” Second, critics overestimate the federal role in education reform, which has found its fuel at the state and local levels. Finally, this line of thinking threatens the bipartisan push for change in America’s schools, including the principles of verifying what progress students are making and holding school systems accountable for that progress.
Let’s take the claim of failure first. The most widely trusted yardstick of American students’ learning is the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Over the past quarter-century, the share of American fourth-graders fully proficient in math on the NAEP increased by 27 percentage points. The share of proficient fourth-grade readers increased by seven percentage points. Over that time, proficiency among African American fourth-graders increased by 18 percentage points in math and 10 percentage points in reading, and Latino fourth-graders’ proficiency gained 21 points in math and nine points in reading. In that same time, the national high school graduation rate (an imperfect but useful measure) climbed 10 points to 84 percent. And the percentage of young adult high school graduates who were enrolled in or had completed some college climbed a dozen points.
This is no claim of “mission accomplished.” Other nations have strengthened their schools faster and more profoundly than we have. Reading and math skills in middle and high schools, as well as knowledge of civics and science, are deplorably low. Learning gaps by race and income level remain tragically wide. But this country has made important improvements over a generation, with real implications for the lives of families and the economic health of our states and communities.
The source of that improvement brings us to the second canard about who has led this sweeping reform effort. The federal government, with its clunky, hard-to-love mandates, makes a convenient bogeyman. As DeVos notes, educators and parents regularly scoff at federal and state mandates. Some are downright ignored.
Yet leadership from Washington and statehouses across the country has mattered. Indeed, the remarkable story of school change in the United States is precisely that it has comprised a true public-private partnership, conjoining the broad authority of government — federal, state and local — with the zeal and creativity of community leaders, philanthropists, activists, educators and parents.
The result has been more engaging and challenging curriculums, expectations for higher academic outcomes in all communities, and a greater array of school choices than ever before. The federal government has played an important role in all that, but it is no leading actor. Conflating a successful, community-based reform effort with a set of mandates from Washington misunderstands history and risks demeaning the true change agents in communities and schools who have led the effort.
Which brings us to the value of school reform in the United States and where we go from here. The curriculums and tests at work in America’s classrooms need improvement. The way we evaluate schools can account for a fuller picture of all that they do for children. And parents need a greater voice in shaping the educational experience of their children. With the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act in place, the opportunity to do these things has never been greater.
Those intent on overstating the role of government would have us believe this means we should tear down what it took a generation to build. But these radical pronouncements don’t have much to offer children. Instead, we should recognize past gains and build on them with a clear acknowledgment of how much work remains.
After a generation of improvements in students’ learning and achievement, walking away from the principles underlying that progress would be a foolish disservice to our children, our communities and our economy. Instead, let’s take pride in what’s been accomplished, recognize the current system’s flaws and get to work on fixing them.