If teacher quality is the most important school-based factor in student outcomes, then why are math scores rising, while reading scores stay flat? Do we just happen to have really good math teachers and really lousy reading teachers? That can’t be: in the case of 4th grade teachers, the exact same teachers are responsible for both subjects.
Or maybe it’s not the teachers. Could it be the curriculum?
That’s the question posed by Dan Willingham and David Grismer in an op-ed in the New York Daily News this morning. They point out intriguing data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that has been hiding in plain sight:
“Reading scores over the last 20 years have been flat. But in math, scores have increased markedly. A fourth-grader at the 50th percentile in 1990 would score at about the 25th percentile compared to the kids taking the test in 2009. That’s an enormous improvement.
“This raises an uncomfortable question for teacher quality advocates: If teachers are so vitally important, why have fourth-grade math scores dramatically improved, but reading scores have flatlined, given that — at least at the elementary level — the same teachers are responsible for each?
Perhaps the secret sauce is not who’s teaching but what’s being taught. It’s a lot easier to align standards, curriculum and assessment in math. “There is little controversy as to the subject matter to be covered, and the order in which one ought to tackle subjects is more obvious,” Willingham and Grissmer write. “Indeed, substantial effort has been made over the last 25 years to develop coherent math standards and curricula from K-8.”
In reading? Not so much.
As we’ve discussed many times on this blog, there’s no direct correlation between the subject matter that gets taught and tested in reading. We teach random, incoherent content that bears no relation to the passages children ultimately encounter on their reading tests. We insist on teaching and testing the “skill” of reading comprehension when it’s clearly not a skill at all. Willingham and Grissmer conclude:
“Yes, overall teaching quality would improve with a more sensible method to usher hapless teachers out of the profession. Better teacher training would help too. But in addition to these longer-term goals, policymakers ought to focus on ensuring that the unglamorous but vital work of curriculum design is done properly. The popular perception is that America’s teachers are largely ineffective compared to international peers. But the data show that when given a clear, cogent curriculum to work with, they’re a lot stronger than we think.”