NAEP: Proof of Education Insanity

by Robert Pondiscio
November 7th, 2011

The following post by Lynne Munson appeared originally on the blog of Common Core, a Washington, DC-based organization that works to promote a liberal arts, core curriculum in U.S. schools.  Munson is Common Core’s executive director and a former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities — rp.

I challenge anyone to think of a nation that works as hard as we do to find silver linings in its educational failures. On Tuesday morning NAEP reported that, in the course of two years, our nation’s 4th and 8th graders improved a single point (on a 500-point scale) in three of four reading and math assessments, and flatlined on the fourth. If you look at figures plotting NAEP scores over the last 30 years, any upward slope in the data is nearly undetectable to the naked eye. Analysts have spent the last few days slicing and dicing this data and making unconvincing arguments that some positive trends can be detected.

But the reality is that these results are appalling—particularly if you consider the massive federal funding increases, intense reform debates, and the incessant promises of new technologies that have dominated the education discussion for nearly two decades. We have spent a great deal and worked very hard but gotten unimpressive results. And this is in reading and math where, to the detriment of so many other core subjects, we’ve aimed nearly all of our firepower.

Einstein* defined “insanity” as “doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.” Well, my bet is that Einstein would have deemed NAEP data absolute proof of America’s educational insanity.

We’ve spent the last twenty years attempting to make what, on the surface, appears to be a diverse, creative, and wide-ranging series of reforms to public education. We’ve tried to bring market pressures to bear through charters and choice. We’ve attempted to set high standards and given high-stakes tests. We’ve experimented with shrinking school and class sizes. We’ve focused on “21st century skills” and used the latest technologies. We’ve collected and analyzed data on an unprecedented scale. We’ve experimented with a seemingly endless array of “strategies” for teaching reading and math and have tried to “differentiate” for every imaginable “type” of student. And we’ve paid dearly in tax dollars and in other ways for each of these “reforms.”

Interestingly, all of these reforms have one thing in common (aside from their failure to improve student performance except in isolated instances): None deals directly with the content of what we teach our students.

Maybe we need to give content a chance. What I mean by “content” is the actual knowledge that is imbedded in quality curricula. Knowledge of things like standard algorithms, poetry, America’s past, foreign languages, great painters, chemistry, our form of government, and much more. There are a few widely used curricula (e.g. International Baccalaureate, Latin schools curricula, Core Knowledge) that effectively incorporate much of this knowledge base. And performance data strongly suggests that these curricula work for ALL students.

So let’s draw on such successes and, sure, conduct more research, do more experiments, and spend more money. But let’s do it to build a shared understanding what our students need to learn —the content they need to learn. Then let’s use the best technology available and make the kind of investments we need in professional development to teach that content effectively. In light of the poor results other approaches have yielded, is there any other sane course?