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?

“Clear Guidance and Examples”

by Robert Pondiscio
July 23rd, 2009

Reports of the death of the national standards movement are greatly exaggerated, notes Common Core’s Lynne Munson.  ” This effort is too coordinated, too strategically smart, and has too much momentum to be dismissed out of hand,” she writes on the group’s blog, and I accept her criticism as valid and essentially correct.  To pronounce them D.O.A. was clearly a bit of impulsive hyperbole on my part.  Lynne’s critique of the draft standards is also spot-on:

As they are currently written the “Common Core” ELA standards are poised to repeat NCLB’s mistakes. NCLB has failed to increase reading achievement in any sustained way because it has approached reading purely as a skill and driven the study of literature and other core subjects from the classroom. The current draft of the ELA standards also overlooks the key role that substantial content plays in teaching students to read.

“NGA and CCSSO clearly want their effort to be successful,” she observes.  “This means providing clear guidance and examples of the kind of novels, non-fiction works, poems, and plays that students should read. That is undoubtedly the advice many of the effort’s feedback reviewers—and the larger public—will provide.”

On this Lynne and I may part company at least somewhat.  Getting that feedback and acting upon it are very different matters. It seems we’ve had many decades of calls for detailed content and a national curriculum — yes, curriculum — going largely unheeded.  The reluctance to codify any texts or works of literature as worth reading or even being familiar with betrays a strong (and standard) anti-curriculum bias and a fatally-flawed concept of reading comprehension that needs to be aggressively, adamantly pushed back against.

Does this mean national standards won’t be successful?  That othing less than a National Reading List and orders that every student must read every work on the list will do?  Of course not.  But (I like Lynne’s phrase) “clear guidance and examples” — the kind of information that teachers can use to create lessons, that test-writers can use to select reading passages, and parents can use to effectively use to know if their kids are where they need to be–is essential.   

The writers of the draft standard got one big thing right:  “The literary and informational texts chosen should be rich in content,” they note.  “This includes texts that have broad resonance and are referred to and quoted often, such as influential political documents, foundational literary works, and seminal historical and scientific texts.”

Amen to that.  But we cannot be content for fate, chance, circumstance or caprice to decide what those rich texts are.  It takes a little bravery — but only a little — to take the next step and offer “clear guidance and examples.”