The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for 2019 has just been released and the results are not good. Basically, in measuring the progress of students in fourth and eighth grade, it shows that American school children have made no progress in math or reading for at least ten years. Since the last time the testing was conducted in 2017, reading performance at both grade levels has declined significantly and most states showed no change in math. U. S. Secretary of Education Betsey DeVos said that “This country is in a student achievement crisis, and over the past decade it has continued to worsen, especially for our most vulnerable students.”
What’s going on here? Karl Zinsmeister, Publisher of “Philanthropy”, a publication of the Philanthropy Roundtable, has it pegged: “Entrenched empires, when they begin to lose battles, strike back hard. There’s even a word for that: Counterrevolution. Right now we are in the midst of a harsh counterrevolution against school reform, and several heads are beginning to pile up”. And he goes on to survey a range of revolts around the country that are rolling back measures that had been put in place over a 25-30 year period during which the country was serious about performance-based reforms. Much of the impetus for this movement was a response to the wake up call of the publication of “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” by the Reagan administration in 1983 followed by the Bush 43 reforms embodied in the No Child Left Behind Act, which in turn spawned numerous state-driven reform initiatives, most of which had as their purpose the enhancement of standards and accountability.
Well, the “empire” lost a lot of battles during this period, and it struck back, and over the past several years it has been able to stop a number of initiatives and reverse others, and all of a sudden education reform and its messengers were out of style. I speak from personal experience in my more than 20 years in the K-12 education reform trenches in Texas. After a 20+ year consensus on standards and accountability-based reforms, we put in place an accountability system that was designed to move from “graduation” to “readiness” with rigorous immersion in a required curriculum that centered on post-secondary readiness, both college and career. This system, approved by the Texas Legislature and signed into law in 2009, was praised by national organizations as the most comprehensive accountability system in the country when fully implemented. Alas, that day never came. The “empire”, or as we call it in Texas, the “education blob”, immediately went on the attack, primarily by demonizing any form of accountability based on “high stakes” standardized assessments, and by 2013 the Legislature had succeeded in rolling back the reforms and gutting the accountability system to the point that the standard for a Texas high school diploma was reduced to Algebra I and English II!
There is plenty of evidence that this story has been repeated across the country and the NAEP scores since 2011 are reporting the results–much of the progress we had made over the period from about 1992 through 2011 has flattened or turned south. It is obvious that we need another “A Nation at Risk” wake up call, but, frankly, I don’t see exactly when or from where that call might be coming.