Education Opinion

“Education Reform Doesn’t Work”

By Sara Mead — October 19, 2011 3 min read
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What’s striking about this otherwise pretty tedious dispute that Lawyers, Guns and Money’s Erik Loomis is picking with Matt Yglesias about school reform is how it’s become taken for granted, common knowledge in some lefty circles that “Education Reform Doesn’t Work.” I mean, Loomis just says so in the title of the post, without feeling any need to back up or justify the statement. (Also, this post is pretty good).

But is that true? There actually is some evidence on this score, the best of which comes from the National Assessment of Education Progress.

As this chart from the long-term NAEP (the one that’s been the same going back to the early 70’s) illustrates, reading scores for elementary school students (the age group on which education reforms have most focused) have actually been on an upward trajectory during the past decade of education reform activity, particularly for black and Hispanic students (whose achievement reform strategies were particularly designed to prioritize). Gains in math are even stronger, again with the greatest gains for black and Hispanic students. Granted, the picture is not as good in middle and high school, but that shouldn’t be surprising, since a.) education reform strategies of the past decade focused most in the elementary years, and b.) the kids who benefitted the most from elementary grades reforms aren’t yet showing up in middle and high school data.

Or look at Florida. Prior to 1999, when Florida’s A+ reform plan was initiated, 4th graders’ achievement levels in reading and math were well below national averages. But the state’s elementary school students have made steady progress over the past decade +, and now perform substantially above national averages. The percentage of Florida youngsters doing math at the “below basic” level fell from 45% to 14 %, and the percentage below basic in reading fell from 47% to 27%. Equally important, the percentage of students performing at the proficient and advanced levels increased during this period--meaning gains have occurred along the continuum, and not just by focusing on students at the bottom. Progress has been particularly strong for African American students, narrowing the achievement gap with their statewide peers.

Keep in mind, that these results are using NAEP, not Florida’s state tests, so they can’t be attributed to “teaching to the test.” Keep in mind also, that Florida accomplished this with per pupil spending levels well below the national average (imagine what they might accomplish if they were in the top 20 states in school funding rather than the bottom 20).

Is Florida perfect--no. In fact, the state’s high school graduation rates have a great deal of room for improvement. Middle and high school achievement are proving a much tougher nut to crack than elementary school gains. But elementary school gains are particularly important because they show that children are mastering basic skills and knowledge that form the foundation for future learning. If you can’t read on grade level by 4th grade, you’re going to have a much harder time navigating the world successfully as an adult. And it’s entirely possible that school reform alone doesn’t get us all the way there in terms of ensuring college and career readiness or closing achievement gaps. That’s why I, like a lot of my more left-leaning friends in the education reform world (and, oh, um, the President!), also support health care reform, better school lunches, expanded access to high-quality early learning opportunities, and other strategies that complement efforts to make schools more effective. But none of this means that school reform “doesn’t work” or that many American schools can’t be much more effective than they currently are.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.