Arne Duncan, a managing partner at the Emerson Collective, was U.S. education secretary from 2009 to 2015.
It should be noted that the student population is relatively poorer and considerably more diverse than in 1971. So, while today’s kids bring more learning challenges, they perform as much as 2½ grades higher than their counterparts from half a century ago.
Twelfth-grade scores, on the other hand, are relatively flat. One explanation may be that higher graduation rates retain weaker students who pull down test scores. If this is true, then holding steady on 12th-grade scores is arguably a victory. Another theory is that high schools have simply been more resistant to reform.
Either way, the high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high of 84 percent, so something is clearly working. Getting more kids over the finish line of high school means many more have a chance to continue their education, and today, they are seizing the opportunity.
In 1980, only about 23 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 29 had a four-year college degree. Today, it’s 36 percent. The share of those with at least a two-year degree has risen from 33 percent to 46 percent.
In 1993, there were 897,000 Latinos in college. Today, there are 2.4 million. In 1993, there were 728,000 blacks in college. Today, it’s 1.7 million. All told, the number of college students has risen from 8.6 million to 12.5 million since 1993.
None of our progress happened because we stood still. It happened because we confronted hard truths, raised the bar and tried new things. Beginning in 2002, federal law required annual assessments tied to transparency. The law forced educators to acknowledge achievement gaps, even if they didn’t always have the courage or capacity to address them.
A decade ago, learning standards were all over the place. Today, almost every state has raised standards. The percentage of high school students taking college-level classes has tripled since 1990.
Today, about 3 million students enroll in charter schools. In places where they are held accountable, such as Boston, charter students gain an extra 12 months in reading and 13 months in math, according to one study.
In the current era of reform, we have started measuring growth and proficiency. A Stanford University researcher recently found that Chicago is getting six full years of learning in five years.
Again, it did not happen by standing still. It happened because of common-sense changes such as increased learning time, more early learning, a deeper focus on the quality of principals and teachers, and a bright light on the data. Whether you call it reform, improvement or plain old hard work, it is making a difference for kids.
Not all reforms have gone to scale. For example, there are no charter schools in the vast majority of America’s more than 14,000 school districts. Teacher evaluation is in the water in many states and districts, but only a few places are sticking with it and getting it right.
High school reforms such as small schools came and went before really taking root. Where they did, however, such as in New York City, they lifted college enrollment among poor kids.
While one study said we failed to turn around struggling schools, another study showed that the boldest interventions got the best results. Perhaps if we had a little more courage, our success rate in turning around schools would be higher.
Certainly, none of the reforms of the past 30 years have worked everywhere or worked perfectly. But in the hands of dedicated educators with proper support, many work well and have opened doors of opportunity for millions of students.
So why the negative narrative about education reform? In a word, politics.
Both ends of the political spectrum resist accountability. Some blame poverty and demand more money while abdicating responsibility for results. Others seem more concerned with process and limiting the federal role than with actual student outcomes.
Some have taken the original idea of school choice — as laboratories of innovation that would help all schools improve — and used it to defund education, weaken unions and allow public dollars to fund private schools without accountability.
No one is talking about setting ambitious national goals around early learning, graduation rates, and college readiness and completion. Voters are not holding anyone accountable for education.
Nevertheless, the facts are clear: Our efforts to improve schools have worked well where people have led with courage. To say otherwise is wrong.
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