An ambitious, important new piece of analysis in Education Next concludes that young Americans across the socioeconomic spectrum have made some progress over the past half century in academic achievement, but that rising tide hasn’t narrowed key gaps among them and hasn’t lifted the high school boats. This raises some really tough questions. How much does gap-closing matter versus tide-rising? Why has the tide stopped rising at the high school door? And—of course—what, if anything, is to be done, besides more of what we’ve been doing, at least since we began to get serious about addressing mediocrity and closing gaps back in the 1960s?
An ambitious, important new piece of analysis by scholars Eric Hanushek (an economist) and Paul Peterson (a political scientist), plus Laura Talpey and Ludger Woessmann, concludes that “gaps in achievement between the haves and have-nots are mostly unchanged over the past half century” and that “steady gains in student achievement at the eighth grade level have not translated into gains at the end of high school.”
In other words, young Americans across the socioeconomic spectrum have made some progress over the past half-century in academic achievement, but that rising tide (a) hasn’t narrowed key gaps among them and (b) hasn’t lifted the high school boats. By and large, this starts from the glum but largely unchallenged conclusion of the 1966 Coleman Report that differences in family circumstance explain more of the differences in educational outcomes than do differences in school resources. While the analysts call into question much-publicized recent work by Stanford’s Sean Reardon suggesting that the income-achievement gap has recently widened, their bottom-line finding—that gaps related to family background remain as wide as ever—underscores today’s widespread concerns about America’s upward-mobility challenges.
It’s a heroic body of analysis, drawing on both NAEP and PISA data covering several subjects and multiple administrations. It will, inevitably, be challenged on methodological grounds—I’ve got a couple of worries on that front myself—but for now let’s assume that their findings are robust and their conclusions valid.
Some really tough questions then follow. How much does gap-closing matter versus tide-rising? Why has the tide stopped rising at the high school door? And—of course—what, if anything, is to be done, besides more of what we’ve been doing, at least since we began to get serious about mediocrity and gaps (and poverty/family/achievement linkages) back in the 1960s?
On that last question, Hanushek and Peterson wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Monday that declared the “war on poverty” essentially a waste of money—hundreds of billions of federal dollars, by their estimate—when it comes to boosting the educational performance of poor kids closer to that of rich kids. In their longer piece, they offer a number of provocative speculations as to why so little has been accomplished and what bears more effort going forward. Perhaps the most promising suggestion, which also aligns with other recent work by Hanushek, involves getting abler teachers into classrooms full of poor kids.
High schools have proven a terribly hard nut to crack, and for many reasons. I’m bullish about the potential that dwells in the kind of comprehensive overhaul recently recommended by Maryland’s Kirwan Commission and by Marc Tucker, who advised the Commission, but it’s a very heavy lift, considering the push to get everyone through to a diploma (however meaningless) and thence into college (however fruitless). I’ve yet to see any state really seize hold of this strategy—perhaps Maryland will—and then stick with it through the flak that’s sure to follow. When and if one does, we’ll also need to watch whether the philosophical and structural changes that follow also incorporate elements—curriculum, pedagogy, standards, accountability, etc.—that truly boost academic achievement.
The reason gap-closing matters is because social mobility matters, particularly in a society that prizes itself on being a land of opportunity, a place where the “American dream” is real and Horatio Alger was more than a writer of fiction. We mustn’t give up on it. But raising all boats matters, too. It makes the country more competitive. It readies more young people to support themselves and their families, and to participate more effectively in their communities.
Our politics of late has perhaps led Americans—certainly the policy and academic types—to focus overmuch on issues of fairness at the expense of universal strategies by which everyone does at least a little better. We’re riveted by the weird, enviable, but contemptible world of the “top 1 percent” (check out the recent flap about admission to elite colleges) and by the plight of the “bottom quarter,” as well every sort of gap that can be linked to race, gender, and other differences. We don’t think hard enough or often enough about what has contributed to everybody learning more today than they did fifty years ago, at least through middle school, or to what (other than global warming!) might keep the boats rising tomorrow.
Yes, we should rethink the premises of the “war on poverty,” at least with respect to education. Yes, we should do what we can to narrow other gaps. But higher standards, better teachers, more individualization, sophisticated technology, solid curricula, more quality school options—things like that are good for everybody. I suspect the surest gap-closing strategy is to make sure that poor kids get them, too.
I’ve been tugging at this issue for twenty years now, going back to the late 1990s when Checker Finn came to speak before the Massachusetts Board of Education. My state had passed ambitious education reform legislation five years earlier, and its controversial high-stakes provision—requiring passage of the tenth-grade MCAS test as a graduation requirement—was scheduled to kick in. Whether to back off, slow down, or stay the course on this form of accountability was being hotly debated, and Finn was there to urge the board to be steadfast. He preached the education reform gospel as we know it today—standards, assessment, consequential accountability, teacher quality, and school choice, especially in the form of charters.
I was then working for State Commissioner David Driscoll (a Democrat) and got a view into his debates—and agreements—with State Board Chair Jim Peyser (a Republican). Ultimately, high stakes remained attached to the test, the worriers and complainers were withstood, the state legislature rewarded this ambition with steady and strong funding—and Massachusetts has been at or near the top of state education quality comparisons ever since.
The big lessons I learned from that experience have guided my thinking and actions in the education policy realm over the ensuing two decades. In particular:
- School improvement starts with the academic core.
- The central reform strategies of standards, accountability, teacher quality, and school choice are the path to equity for students of color, low-income students, and others who face disadvantages.
- Successful education reform transcends party lines.
Fast forward to 2019. We emerged from the Obama era with unprecedented (albeit incomplete) alignment across local, state, and federal policy in support of this model of education reform. Much of the philanthropy and non-profit sectors were key partners, focusing their efforts in the same direction. Yet despite some progress, yesterday’s achievement gaps largely persist today, as do debates about how even to judge student success. We are now in a time of reckoning, grappling with the awareness that this ambitious set of strategies may be insufficient for ensuring all kids a quality education—and then asking, “What else? What more? What different?”
“Trends in Education Philanthropy,” a recent report from my organization, Grantmakers for Education, offers evidence of how dramatically many are rethinking school improvement. It shows how many of the issues and strategies that were top priority areas in philanthropy just three years ago have seen precipitous declines in funder interest. For example, teacher development captured more funder attention than any other issue in 2015, with 65 percent of respondents funding in that area. By 2018, only 38 percent of funders were investing in teachers. Likewise, the percentage investing in standards and assessments dropped from 33 percent to 5 percent. Investment in turning around low-performing schools fell from 34 percent to 13 percent. Yet those were some of the core reforms of the previous decade.
We see the traditional reform agenda giving way to new priorities among funders—and wonder, of course, whether these will yield stronger results than those they are supplanting. Top areas to which funders anticipate devoting major resources include social and emotional learning, wraparound supports, and community engagement. These are also the issues that funders believe have the highest potential for positive impact.
As one who has built a career on the previous set of core assumptions, I’m struggling to make sense of what lessons from the last era are driving these shifts. There is plenty of buzz about where the field is moving, but less about why it’s moving there.
- Evolution or seismic shift? Are these changes an evolution in the thinking of funders and others, or are they a fundamental shift away from one set of strategies toward another? Do we retain yesterday’s reforms and add more? Or are we concluding that the strategies were wrong and should be abandoned?
- Purpose of school? In the prior era, defining school and student success had a focal point and obvious metric: test scores in academic subjects. Sure, there were other measures, too, but standards-aligned tests were generally regarded as central, whatever their imperfections. Are we at risk of broadening the purpose to be about so many things—some of them awfully hard to measure—that we cannot judge progress?
- Potential for bipartisanship? A recent analysis by Rick Hess and Jay Greene shows that most in education reform lean left, and the data from our report reinforce that notion. Does this diminish our potential for securing support—both policy and needed dollars—from legislators and governors?
The data paint a picture of a changing field and an expanded definition of what school should be. It suggests that we are not entirely sure of our direction but remain committed to doing more for students in need. This commitment is good for students, especially the children of color and poverty whom our system disproportionately fails. Added attention to the social-emotional dimension of learning, programs to address racial injustice, and increased efforts to engage families could indeed hold the keys to motivating those students, improving their outcomes, and closing the achievement gap.
That sort of a shift—rethinking our approach to improving outcomes for kids—is one I can support. Changing the goalposts because the work is too hard is one we must resist. I am hopeful that most reformers—and funders—will agree.
Emboldened and empowered by newly elected Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, efforts to dismantle New Mexico’s many strong education policies are now underway. Last week, as the state’s legislative session ended, lawmakers took their first big step in rolling back years of laudable progress made by former education secretaries Hanna Skandera and Christopher Ruszkowski and many others. They passed a bill that, when signed by the governor, will scrap New Mexico’s great A–F school rating system and replace it with a series of “text labels” designed to obfuscate school performance.
Implementing this law will be a big mistake that will harm New Mexico’s most vulnerable students.
ESSA requires states to annually identify their lowest performing schools, which are then subject to intervention. There is no explicit mandate, however, to assign ratings to schools beyond those identified for intervention and those not. States that publish A–F grades and the like are choosing to do so voluntarily.
Nevertheless, in a 2017 analysis, Mike Petrilli and I found that thirty-five states, including New Mexico, took it upon themselves to create easy-to-understand annual school ratings. And for good reason. A–F grades, five-star systems, and user-friendly numerical models provide clear signals to parents, citizens, and educators about the quality of a school and can nudge systems toward improvement.
Other models fall short of this standard. Text labels that are easy to understand have some merit, but these often fail to communicate clearly. And systems that offer numerous data points with no bottom line (for example, “data dashboards”) or that employ murky text labels do neither. They’re Orwellian and keep interested parties in the dark about current school quality.
Sadly, New Mexico’s new school ratings will fall into the lattermost category—ruining one of the best systems in the country and turning it into one of the worst. Taking the place of intuitive letter grades would be the following five categories:
- Targeted Support School
- Comprehensive Support School
- More Rigorous Intervention School
- New Mexico Spotlight School
- Traditional Support School
I listed these in a random order—and did so intentionally. Which label is best? Which is worst? It is of course impossible to tell. New Mexico has branded these “spotlight” designations, which as my colleague Dale Chu quipped recently, is grimly ironic.
In that same essay, Dale shares an illuminating anecdote about his time as a state assistant superintendent:
When I was in Indiana, we inherited an equally enigmatic word salad system. Try sorting these correctly: Academic Watch; Academic Progress; Commendable Progress; Academic Probation; Exemplary Progress. At the public hearing we held prior to switching to an A–F system, a local superintendent testified that the jargon-filled approach was preferable precisely because it was more difficult for parents and other key stakeholders to understand!
The change in New Mexico will have similar effects: Parents will have a harder time determining which schools are good and which are bad. Administrators of bad programs will have an easier time escaping blame, while those at strong ones will find it difficult to get the recognition they deserve. And students will suffer—languishing in poorly performing schools through no fault of their own.
New Mexico has long had some of the worst student outcomes in America. Over a period of eight years, leaders toiled to pass reforms that positioned New Mexico to finally give its students the schools they deserve. The state’s new leadership wants to reverse and roll back all of this progress, and this is merely the beginning. They also plan retreat on teacher quality, school turnarounds, testing, and charter schools.
It’s important that these reversals are not successful.
Running a charter school involves more than an independent leader and an alternative learning atmosphere for students—charter quality is supported by several layers of oversight and supervision, even before schools open their doors. The application and approval process, or the “charter school pipeline,” is facilitated by state and local authorizers, who review the goals and strategies of each new proposed school and regularly check in on the progress of existing schools. To better understand the environment authorizers face, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) recently conducted a study of thousands of recent charter school applications, examining those that were approved and those that weren’t.
Researchers collected nearly 3,000 charter school applications from authorizers and state departments of education in twenty states over a five-year period (fall 2013–spring 2018), a number which includes appeals and reapplications from operators whose proposals were initially denied. While the sample does not include every charter application, the participating authorizers oversee 81 percent of all existing charter schools in these states. They then coded each application across 180 different variables, including school type, features, applicant characteristics, and more.
Their findings highlight the diversity in charter school models both within states and between states. Across nineteen different school models, ranging from military to international to special education, approval rates vary widely. The Diverse by Design (consciously promoting diversity, inclusion, and cultural awareness) and Classical (or liberal arts) models see approval rates around 60 percent, while less than a quarter of Gifted and Single Sex models get approved. Different models are often more or less popular in particular regions—for example, 33 percent of applications in Washington, D.C., were for Hybrid models (combination online and in person), while authorizers in Connecticut and Maryland received no Hybrid applications. One universal trend is that the No Excuses model (high expectations, strict behavioral codes) has become less popular, dropping in both number of proposals and approval rate since 2013.
NACSA’s report also identifies a shift in the types of operators proposing new charters. Over the last five years, the proportion of applications from for-profit operators (Education Management Organizations, or EMOs) have decreased by half, from 21 percent to just 10 percent. Non-profits (Charter Management Organizations, or CMOs) and unaffiliated operators each gained 5 percent of the share of applications as a result. But at the same time, 61 percent of approved schools were under the auspices of CMOs or EMOs.
Additionally, the majority of applications did not identify any external financial support—a commitment of at least $50,000 from incubators, philanthropists, or community partnerships. Those that had such backing enjoyed a much higher approval rate (up to 56 percent, compared to an average of 38 percent without any support).
The authors draw some important implications for charter school authorizers based on these findings. Perhaps most importantly, they stress that authorizers should ensure they have the capacity to review proposals for many different school models; the broad spread in approval rates may imply that authorizers are more comfortable with and likely to approve some types more than others. Second, they encourage authorizers to play an active role in the community by listening to the needs and desires of families, shepherding potential new schools through the approval process, and fostering connections between new schools and philanthropists or community leaders.
This report does not examine the quality of any of these applications; doing so would provide a great deal more information about the landscape authorizers face and some insight into why proposals for certain models or operators are less “successful” than others. Still, NACSA’s overview of recent trends in the charter school pipeline is a valuable start in what the researchers call our “north star”: “Creating more great schools for children.”
SOURCE: “Reinvigorating the Pipeline: Insights Into Proposed and Approved Charter Schools,” The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (March 2019).
Decades of research show increases in teacher diversity, encouraging for a profession that’s long been disproportionately white and female. But some recent entries have undermined this trend by suggesting that millennial teachers are becoming less diverse relative to America’s workforce. In a new study, Brookings researchers Michael Hanson and Diane Quintero look at these issues by examining how diversity has fluctuated with age across three generations.
They analyzed six sets of American Community Survey results between 1990 and 2015. Teachers were then grouped into one of three generations determined by their birth year: baby boomers (born 1946–64), Generation Xers (born 1965–79), and millennials (born 1980–96). They calculated the percentage of nonwhite teachers and the percentage of nonwhite full-time college-educated workers for each generation, and how that percentage changed as individuals in each generation aged and more diverse teachers entered the workforce later in their lives and careers.
Hanson and Quintero find that, yes, millennial teachers are less diverse than Generation Xers, but also that this may be because millennials are still very young. Their data show that the diversity of the teacher workforce increases as it ages, regardless of generation. In other words, young educators are less diverse than old ones. This is in part caused by nonwhite teachers enter the field later, on average, than their white counterparts: 29.8 and 28.4 years of age, respectively. Hanson and Quintero speculate that this might be caused in part by nonwhite teachers being more likely to enter the profession through alternate certification programs rather than traditional teacher preparatory programs. Diversity peaks in the late 30s and 40s, yet the oldest millennial teacher is just thirty-nine. Diversity among Gen Xers educators trended similarly.
However students and the college-educated workforce are becoming more diverse more rapidly than teachers. A previous Brookings report found that in 2060 white children will make up only 34 percent of the student body. Closing the racial gap in that time would require around one million white teachers to leave the profession and for 600,000 Hispanic and 300,000 black teachers to replace them. And compared to all college-graduated full-time workers, Hansen and Quintero observe that the proportion of white teachers are more than 10 percentage points higher than the proportion in other field. This gap is considerably larger than it was for baby boomers and Gen Xers, which were 7 and 3 percentage points, respectively.
These findings are concerning, at best, especially given the ample evidence that same-race teachers boost the outcomes of minority students. States, districts, and teacher-training programs should therefore look for ways to recruit, hire, and retain more high-quality educators of color. Other industries are doing it. Why can’t education?
SOURCE: Michael Hansen and Diana Quintero, “The Diversity Gap for Public School Teachers Is Actually Growing across Generations,” Brookings Institution (March 2019).
On this week’s podcast, Celine Coggins, executive director at Grantmakers for Education, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss philanthropy’s shift to the left on education policies. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines America’s persistent achievement gaps.
Amber’s Research Minute
Eric A. Hanushek et al., “The Unwavering SES Achievement Gap: Trends in U.S. Student Performance,” National Bureau of Economic Research (March 2019).