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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why I’m Optimistic About the Performance of U.S. Students

By Guest Blogger — February 18, 2014 4 min read
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Note: Morgan Polikoff, assistant professor at the University of Southern California, is guest posting this week. You can follow him on Twitter at @mpolikoff.

A year or so ago, Rick and I were chatting about the implementation of the Common Core. I had just written a chapter for a book that he and Mike McShane were editing (about how the rollout of teacher evaluation policy would threaten to blow up Common Core, foreshadowing New York). As I was talking to him, he sort of cocked his head to one side, looked me right in the eyes, and said “You should write for RHSU on why you’re so optimistic about the Common Core.” And here I am. Thanks for the invitation, Rick!

Over the course of this shortened week, I’m going to talk a bit about why I’m optimistic about public education in the U.S. To grossly over-simplify the current education reform debate, most folks these days fall into one of two camps--a) things are terrible and we must reform now, and b) things aren’t so bad/are improving and reforms are destroying our schools. I’m going to argue that both groups are partly right--that things are clearly, by almost any metric, improving, but that this doesn’t mean we should cease our efforts to improve schools. Indeed, I’ll argue that some meaningful proportion of the improvement we’ve seen is because of our policy efforts over the last several decades.

Later in the week, I’m going to talk about some things that concern me--things that policymakers and practitioners should pay attention to in the next few years. I hope you’ll stick around and let me know what you think about my ideas.

Let’s start with a thought experiment. Pick a child--any kind of child, really. Let’s call him/her Pat. Pat could be a child on free-lunch, a child with a disability, a girl, a boy, a Hispanic child, or an English learner. Pat could be a child at basically any grade level. Ask yourself whether a child like Pat is better off educationally (let’s just say this means things like higher test scores, more likely to enroll in or complete college, etc.) compared to the same kind of child ten or twenty years ago. For pretty much any Pat, the answer--the data tell us--is yes.

With regard to test scores, the nation’s report card (NAEP) shows that achievement levels in 2012 are higher than in 2000 or 1990 or 1978 for virtually all groups at all grade levels. In some cases, these gains are staggering--for instance, gains in 4th grade mathematics on the main NAEP are 29 points in just over two decades (the rough rule-of-thumb is that 20 points is about a grade level). In other cases, the gains are smaller--just 5 points for 4th grade reading over the same span. The gains hold for students with disabilities, for students eligible for free lunch, for white, black, Hispanic, and Asian students, and for English learners. There are a few exceptions--the gains are smaller or nonexistent overall and for some groups at 12th grade (though if you disaggregate, in many cases you still find modest improvements for children like Pat). Remarkably, these gains have not come at the expense of performance in other subjects--scores in science, civics, and geography have either increased or stayed the same, depending on grade and group.

With regard to attainment, the results are also quite positive. To be sure, there are some challenges with measures of attainment, but a) dropout rates are at an all-time low for all racial/ethnic groups, including Pat’s, b) high school graduation rates are at decades-long highs for all racial/ethnic groups, and c) the proportion of adults with high school and college degrees has steadily increased for decades and is at or near all-time highs for every group. In my mind, it would require willful pessimism (or intentional misrepresentation of the data) to conclude that Pat is less likely to succeed in education now than (s)he was ten or twenty years ago. And in some cases, the likelihood of success is clearly substantially greater now than before.

Of course, there is no question we could do better in a number of ways. Large test score and attainment gaps still exist between racial/ethnic groups and between high- and low-socioeconomic status students (indeed, SES gaps have widened). Performance on international assessments shows we trail some high-achieving Asian and European countries (though our relative standing varies based on which test we’re talking about, and some locales do quite well when compared with high-achieving countries). The success in raising performance in earlier grades has not yet reached high schools. College remediation rates are far too high, and completion rates are far too low. But to deny the progress we have made is to diminish the hard work of millions of teachers and students over the past few decades.

--Morgan Polikoff

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.