Flatline! Call a Code Blue!

by Robert Pondiscio
October 14th, 2009

Reactions to today’s dispiriting NAEP scores….

“The trend is flat; it’s a plateau. Scores are not going anywhere, at least nowhere important.  That means that eight years after enactment of No Child Left Behind, the problems it set out to solve are not being solved, and now we’re five years from the deadline and we’re still far, far from the goal.” (Chester E. Finn, Jr. Thomas B. Fordham Institute)

“Had we had 19 years of flat results and one year of increases in one subject, we wouldn’t celebrate. Similarly, we shouldn’t press the panic button over one year of stalled growth in one subject…this is far from convincing evidence that NCLB failed or education reform is doomed.” (Andy Smarick @ Flypaper)

“It’s clear from the data at both grade levels that we still have a long way to go to effectively prepare all of our elementary and middle school students for the world that awaits them in high school and beyond.” (Kati Haycock, President of The Education Trust)

“Supporters of the No Child Left Behind Act–and I’ve generally been one of them–hoped that the law would catalyze a major upward move in student achievement. That hasn’t happened.” (Kevin Carey @ The Quick and The Ed)

“Seeing stuff flat-line is not what we want as a country — seeing achievement gaps that are unacceptably large.  The status quo isn’t good enough. We have to get dramatically better.”  (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan)

“We’re losing ground to our international competitors every year.  It’s a situation that calls for dramatic improvement. Unfortunately there seems to be apathy across the country.” (David P. Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board)

“The current system is producing school teachers who do not have a strong background in math themselves and may even be ‘afraid’ to teach math to pre-K students…if we want to improve students’ proficiency in math, we have to improve teachers‘ proficiency too. (Lisa Guernsey @ Early Ed Watch)


  1. Lisa G from Early Ed Week is almost there. She states some teachers may even be “afraid” to teach math. There are a number of elementary school teachers who were weak at math when they were in school and want nothing to do with it in their present classrooms. They attempt to rationalize their practice by arguing that reading is the most important subject and they simply have no time to teach anything else. They’re out there, believe me, in droves. It’s scary, especially for the kids who wind up spending a year in their classroom.

    David Driscoll, as usual, is on target.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — October 14, 2009 @ 8:24 pm

  2. Great set of quotes… Remarkably like the ones we saw a generation ago, and those that proceeded NCLB enactment. A good hand wringing does wonders for the soul, but nothing to address the core issues. Our leaders are about to pour billions more into the common core strategy based on the same failed fundamentals that spawed these disappointing NAPE scores. Do we have to wait another generation or two before our education leaders get off the bandwagon and realize that they have a fundamental systemic problem that can be solved? The research is crytal clear. Uniil our teachers have ready access to a classroom curriculum which is truly aligned to a well-defined, sequential set of teachable and measureable content standards and our state assessments have the same alignment and granulatity, flat-lined results will continue. The wake-up call has been been ringing since 1983… It’s time we heard not only its tone, but its message. Change will not result from incremental progress using a flawed strategy. It’s time for Secretary Duncan, our Governors, Chief State School Officers and the education policy community to turn the audacity of hope into the reality of achievement gains. Unfortunately, current evidence indicates the message is again being misunderstood.

    Comment by Steve Kussmann — October 15, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

  3. Steve,
    In support of your words, the Brookings Institute today published a summary of school reform effects on student acheivement.

    State Standards had zero effect. Curricular reform had the greatest effects on student acheivement.

    Curriculum vs. Other Policy Levers
    Summary of Effect Sizes

    Charter schools in general
    0.00 mathematics
    Oversubscribed NYC charter schools
    0.09 mathematics

    Reconstituting the teacher workforce
    Merit pay for teachers in India
    0.15 reading and mathematics
    Teach for America
    0.15 mathematics

    Preschool programs
    Abecedarian Preschool
    0.45 reading
    Head Start
    0.24 letter naming
    Head Start
    0.00 vocabulary
    Even Start
    0.00 vocabulary

    Nurse Practitioner Partnership
    0.09 reading & math test scores

    State standards
    0.00 mathematics

    Curriculum comparisons
    More effective math curricula
    0.30 mathematics
    Most effective preschool curricula
    0.48 vocabulary
    Most effective dropout preventions
    1.00 progressing in school
    Most effective early reading programs
    0.80 alphabetics

    Comment by Erin Johnson — October 15, 2009 @ 5:56 pm

  4. Erin:

    Thank you. Yes, the new Brookings Study is excellent and makes a serious and supported point about the student performance outcome gains from two reform approaches – standards reform and curriculum reform.

    Russ Whitehurst’s evidence strongly supports the hypothesis that when teachers are given a quality curriculum and teach from it, the likelihood of student achievement improvement is much higher than if they are given only content standards/curriculum frameworks with or without their assorted support documentation. His conclusion makes perfect sense given the difficulty teachers have using their state’s inadequately defined content standards to develop instructional materials with the any expectation that they are ‘aligned’ with the state’s equally disconnected EOY test questions.

    Missing from Russ’ paper was an analysis of the effect on student achievement of clearly defined standards (a state’s explicit definition of the sequential ‘what to teach’) perfectly aligned with their related curriculum. Given that these conditions do not exist in our nation’s classrooms, and therefore, cannot be analyzed, Russ is forgiven the oversight.

    The paper correctly states that the degree to which the curriculum fulfills the student learning objective is the appropriated measure of its effectiveness. If student achievement gains are the criteria for determining the quality level of a curriculum, then the student achievement objectives must be clearly denominated by the specific, sequential knowledge and skills items and cognition level set for them. For teachers this level of definition allows the proverbial ‘level playing field.’ Standards define the playing field (the what to teach objectives) and the instructional curriculum transfers the knowledged and skills represented by objectives to the student, and along with the teacher, represent the instructional or teaching factors.

    Current practice, which unfortunately is guiding the Common Core State Standards approach, does not define or communicate the ‘what to teach’ objectives to the level of granularity required for the true alignment of curriculum (or assessments). If they did, teachers would know their state’s learning expectation and researchers would have a clear benchmark for measuring student achievement attainment against any curriculum approach.

    We encourage Russ and Brookings to take their research to the next level of process integration and definition. The Aligned By Design Model demonstrates a teacher-focused, politically acceptable and educationally sound solution which provides both objective clarity, using education’s natural denominator, and the alignment of high quality curriculum and instruction to achieve those objectives in the classroom. The model allows assessments take their rightful place as a perfectly aligned measurement of progress and real-time identifier of individual student learning gaps, alleviating teachers from having to use released test questions as a primary resource for their curriculum development efforts.

    I would welcome a further dialogue on these issues, and if interested, invite you to contact me at stevekussmann@alignedbydesign.org


    Comment by Steve Kussmann — October 16, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

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