Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Public Education is a Risky Business

If you are a person of certain age, you may remember the report, A Nation at Risk, put out during the Reagan years about how bad public education had gotten.  Turns out, not so much.  From NPR,

What 'A Nation At Risk' Got Wrong, And Right, About U.S. Schools

The report's narrative of failing schools — students being out-competed internationally and declining educational standards — persists, and has become an entrenched part of the debate over education in the U.S.

Prudence Carter, the dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, teaches her students that "A Nation At Risk" was a "pivotal moment" in education policy — the beginning of a "moment of angst" about the state of the nation's schools.

But what I learned in talking to two of the original authors of "A Nation At Risk" was that they never set out to undertake an objective inquiry into the state of the nation's schools.
They started out already alarmed by what they believed was a decline in education, and looked for facts to fit that narrative.
And while their report is still widely cited, a second official federal government analysis of standardized test scores, produced just seven years later, showed the opposite of what was claimed in "A Nation At Risk." That analysis found, instead, "steady or slightly improving trends" in student achievement.
Also of note during this time period:
Meanwhile, in more than half of states, public schools are receiving less total state funding than they were a decade ago.

In all but a few states, teachers earn less than what other professionals with a similar level of education are making. Just 11 states direct more money to districts full of impoverished students than to affluent districts in consideration of their greater needs, a figure that has declined by half since the Great Recession.

And, just over 50 percent of public school students are now eligible for free and reduced-price lunch because of their family income.

In the context of declining resources and rising child poverty, maintaining steady or slightly improving test scores over decades could be described with other words besides "flat" and "disappointing" — perhaps "surprising" or "heroic."
 Even Diane Ravitch got somewhat fooled:
The Sandia Report got something very different. Its publication was delayed for many months. It's been cited as a famous case of censorship.

Diane Ravitch, then a Department of Education official under President George H. W. Bush, wrote an op-ed critical of the Sandia Report headlined "U.S. Schools: The Bad News Is Right."

Ravitch later publicly renounced this position and others, and became a bestselling author and advocate focused on educational equity. When "A Nation At Risk" came out, "I thought, oh boy, this is going to shake everybody up. It's a good thing," she tells NPR.

"Now, I think it sounded an alarm that was misguided, because the schools were not sunk in mediocrity."
What to think of all of this now?
But the narrative established by "A Nation At Risk" still seems to be the one that dominates how we think of the data.

Guthrie, for one, thinks that's been, on balance, a good thing, because it brought education to the front and center of the U.S. agenda.

"My view of it in retrospect," he says, "is seldom, maybe never, has a public report been so wrong and done so much good."
Well, Mr. Guthrie is right about the attention.  When people learn I have a public education blog, they ask, "What do you write about?"  I tell them it started off about Seattle public education but now that everyone is much more aware of many of the issues and challenges in public education, I found myself writing about more and more state and national issues.

So does the truth lay somewhere in-between?  It's hard to say.  I think if we had one national test, we would know better how we do as a nation.  But we are also a nation that tests all kids and that certain skews the numbers when we are compared internationally to countries like China.

I think it is apparent that there needs to be a triage to close the opportunity gap. And, if that started closing, hopefully, a rising tide would lift all boats.

But until this country looks in the mirror and believes that poverty does matter in education, I don't think much will change.


Anonymous said...

Gerald Bracey repeatedly referred to the Sandia report as a true measure of public education, and he was criticized & ostracized in many educ circles because of it. Too many in ed policy & higher ed wanted A Nation At Risk to be true because of the ideological (and financial) opportunities that presented them. Much of Bracey's work is still completely relevant today, and I highly recommend it, especially some of his books & articles about how to interpret test scores & how not to be "statistically snookered". Sadly he died not long after he moved from Virgina to the Port Angeles area back in the early 2000s.


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