By Michael J. Petrilli
Today’s conventional wisdom says that kids are too stressed out by the burdens we parents are placing on them, and we need to help them relax. Maybe that’s true for the tiny sliver of students who attend hothouse high schools in the bubbles where many of us happen to live. But for America at large, it’s exactly the wrong advice. We need the majority of parents and kids to be more stressed out. We need to shake them out of their complacency and tell them: You and your kids are heading toward a coming-of-age catastrophe, but you can avoid it if you act now!
I’m referring to the fact that only about one-third of American teenagers leave the K–12 system ready to succeed in postsecondary education. Another third go to college unprepared, where they hit the brick wall of remedial coursework, and many of them—including almost all of the low-income students—drop out. That amounts to more than a million kids a year seeing their dreams dashed before they are old enough to legally drink a beer.
Chart 1: College preparedness, college matriculation, and college completion
*2005 marked the beginning of a new NAEP assessment framework for math.
That’s tragic enough. What’s worse is that neither these young people, nor their parents, see it coming. Yet “we” know—we policy experts, we school district leaders, we state officials, we educators. We can see it, clear as day, in the data, starting as early as the sixth grade. We know with reasonable precision which students are likely to leave high school ready for college, and which are not. We just don’t bother to tell the families.
Don’t believe me? In the states that contract with SAS to manage their accountability data—including Fordham’s home state of Ohio—teachers, principals, and superintendents can see a projection of a student’s ACT score as early as the sixth grade. Any district using NWEA’s MAP exam can receive the same via a nifty tool. Equating any standardized test score result to an ACT or SAT projection is reasonably doable. This is a straightforward use of the type of “predictive analytics” sweeping across so many fields. And while college readiness is about much more than test scores, it’s also the case that low test scores will keep you out of the best colleges, and land you in remedial education.
The point is not to peer into an unalterable, deterministic, or predetermined future, or to tell kids or their parents that they are destined for failure. Rather, it’s to change the future. Just like doctors must deliver stern warnings to the parents of obese children—help them lose the weight or else diabetes or worse lies ahead—educators must be prepared to deliver stern warnings about educational underperformance. In both cases, the hope is to alter behavior.
I’m now convinced that this lecture probably has to come from someone who parents trust—one of their child’s educators. I was hoping that wasn’t necessarily the case. I wrote last year for Education Next that it might be interesting to test out an online tool that delivered this news directly to parents of middle schoolers, early enough that they could do something about it. They could enter their child’s test scores into a website; it would spit out an ACT projection and list the types of colleges their kid might be able to get into. For many children, the news would be disconcerting, as it would predict remedial education in the offing. This might catch parents’ attention and spur them to action.
We at Fordham decided to give it a try, so a few weeks ago our partner, the Gigawatt Group, held focus groups in Columbus to test it out on middle-school parents. It was not encouraging. Unsurprisingly, parents hate state standardized tests, but what they hate even more is the notion that test scores could tell them whether their children are on track for college—especially when their kids are still so young. These moms and dads would eventually concede that it would be interesting to know what ACT score their kids are likely to receive, since colleges do in fact consider these scores in admission decisions. But they really want to be able to talk all of this over with their kids’ teachers. Furthermore, they put very little stock in test scores alone, whereas they completely trust the feedback they get from school. If their kids’ report cards are full of As and Bs, and their teachers tell them at parent-teacher conferences that everything looks good, that’s what they are going to believe. They don’t know what “we” know—that the vast majority of kids in America get As and Bs, whether they are on track or not.
I’d still like to test out the website idea, but there may be no getting around the schools on this one. States can send beautifully designed test score reports showing that students aren’t on track. But parents will ignore or rationalize them if they contradict their kids’ report cards. The most common refrains at the focus groups were “my child just doesn’t test well” and “they just had a bad day.”
What we need, then, is for schools to step up. Ideally, starting in sixth grade or so, middle schools would have someone sit down with parents once a year to give an annual check-up. (The “someone” is tricky, as by middle school kids have six or seven teachers instead of one. Should it be the English teacher? Math? Both? A counselor?) At the check-up, the educator should go over the child’s report card, state test score results, and any other data available, such as results from vendor assessments like the MAP or iReady. The script might go like this:
It’s not too early to think about college for your child—whether that means a four-year university or a technical or trade school. In order to get into a good school and not have to retake basic courses, your child is going to need to have good grades, take challenging classes in high school, and get good scores on the ACT or SAT. We can already see some warning signs that Maya has some gaps that she needs to work on. (Explain)
There’s time to catch up, but not much time to waste. She needs to be putting more effort into her homework, and should think about signing up for tougher classes next year. You can also help her at home. One great site is Khan Academy, where she can view online lessons that are pinpointed directly at her challenge areas. Let me stress that, at her current trajectory, she is likely to either not get into college, or get in and struggle. We need to change that trajectory!
For educators out there: Are schools already doing this? What would it take for them to embrace this role? Do we need to pass laws mandating these kinds of annual check-ups?
And for the rest of us: Let’s keep brainstorming ideas to share the hard truth with parents and kids. Many American teenagers are simply not working hard enough. They would work harder, and smarter, if we asked them to. A shot at the American Dream is at stake. Let’s not waste it.
“My proposition is that illegitimacy is the single most important social problem of our time—more important than crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, welfare or homelessness because it drives everything else. Doing something about it is not just one more item on the American policy agenda, but should be at the top.”
In 1993, when the largely white and affluent readership of the Wall Street Journal read this editorial excerpt, the presumption was that the author must be referring to the unfortunate denizens of the urban ghetto. The face of illegitimacy then (and now) were low-income black and brown people incapable of delaying gratification.
Without urgent action, these impoverished people would continue to raise staggering numbers of children in single parent households. These poor souls would then perpetuate the pathologies that were figuratively and literally burning down their neighborhoods.
But the title of the essay was “The Coming White Underclass,” and the author was Charles Murray. Yes, this is the same Charles Murray who today is being apoplectically protested by college faculty and students who likely have never read this 1993 essay nor Coming Apart: The State of White America, which in 2012 foreshadowed the conditions that would later drive the Trump presidency.
Nearly twenty-five years ago, Murray sounded the alarm at what would happen if the long, steep climb in white out-of-wedlock births was not arrested:
“The white underclass will begin to show its face in isolated ways. Look for certain schools in the white neighborhoods to get a reputation as being unteachable, with large numbers of disruptive students and indifferent parents. Talk to the police; listen for stories about white neighborhoods where the incidence of domestic disputes and casual violence has been shooting up. Look for white neighborhoods with high concentrations of drug activity and large numbers of men who have dropped out of the labor force.”
Twenty-four years later, Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton and his wife Anne Case have answered how well the white community heeded Murray’s ominous predictions. In their groundbreaking study, the two Princeton economists document a startling rise in the number of “deaths of despair”—death by drugs, alcohol, and suicide—of middle-aged non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. with a high school diploma or less. Since 1998, white morbidity (the rate of disease in a population) and mortality (the rate of death) became markedly worse and geographically scattered. According to the Brookings Institution, the increase in white morbidity began in the Southwest in 2000. By the mid-2000s, it had spread to Appalachia, Florida, and the West Coast. Today it is countrywide, from deep rural areas to large central cities.
Stunningly, this increase in the white mortality rate has come amid the context of gradually improving outcomes among blacks and Hispanics. In 1999, the mortality rate of non-Hispanic whites aged 50–54 with only a high school degree was 30 percent lower than the mortality rate of blacks in the same age group; by 2015, it was 30 percent higher. There are similar crossovers between white and black mortality in all age groups from 25–29 to 60–64.
Not surprisingly, the suffering of this older generation of whites has been passed down to the next, most visibly through drug abuse and addiction. A recent New York Times feature, “Inside a Killer Drug Epidemic,” details how America’s opioid crisis has claimed more than 300,000 mostly white lives in the last fifteen years, including some 33,000 in 2015 alone. Enough opioids are now prescribed in the United States each year to medicate every man, woman, and child around the clock for one month.
Some public health officials consider it the worst drug crisis in American history, even more crippling than the crack cocaine scourge that devastated minority communities in the nineties. In education, the opioid epidemic has forced school nurses in states as varied as New York, Kentucky, Connecticut, New Mexico, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania to stock naloxone, an antidote for people who are overdosing on prescription painkillers and opioids like heroin. Like other states considering similar legislation, Rhode Island now requires every middle school, junior high, and high school to have naloxone on hand and ready for immediate distribution.
This rise in deaths of despair among middle-aged white Americans, the lethal and accelerating opioid epidemic being experienced by the subsequent generation, and the telltale signs that the youngest generation of whites will face its own struggles, as exemplified by poor literacy outcomes of white fourth graders, are all symptoms of a deeper dysfunction.
Why is this happening?
The 2015 Closing the Opportunity Gap initiative, organized by the Saguaro Seminar, attempted to answer this question. A dozen of the country’s leading experts in education, family, and parenting drew upon the findings of Harvard Professor Robert Putnam’s five-year effort to research the growing inequality gaps in America and why fewer Americans of all races today are upwardly mobile.
The group identified a tangle of causal factors, including the unraveling of the social fabric and safety nets in working-class communities, segregation along class lines, and economic insecurity. But a key takeaway was this: “Growing up with two parents is now unusual in the white (as well as non-white) working class, while two-parent families are normal and becoming more common among the upper middle class (both white and non-white). Most Americans are unaware that the white working class family is today more fragile than the black family was at the time of the famous alarm-sounding 1965 report, ‘The Negro Family: The Case For National Action,’ by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.”
Despite Murray’s warnings in 1993, the white underclass has arrived, spurred by a wave of his forewarned rise in illegitimacy. As Figure 1 shows, for five decades, an explosion in unplanned, out-of-wedlock pregnancies and births has been at the heart of the slow, steady collapse of the low-income American family—white, black, and brown—further entrenching already vulnerable populations in multi-generational poverty.
Figure 1. Percentage of all births that were to unmarried momen, by race, selected years, 1960-2014
SOURCE: “Births to Unmarried Women: Indicators on Children and Youth,” Child Trends Data Bank (December 2015).
The resulting family instability, the reduced stigma around absent fathers, and the normalization of single parenthood (especially to women aged twenty-four and under), must now be recognized as a key causal factor for why so many poor and working class Americans across all races are struggling to succeed in school and life.
Noted John Hopkins University sociologist Kathy Edin has extensively studied poverty through ethnographic observations and in-depth interviews with hundreds of unmarried, low-income mothers and fathers. Her eyewitness research helps explain why so many poor women have a first baby without marrying, and why men continue to father children before they can afford to take care of them.
Edin’s must-read books, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage and Doing the Best I Can: Fathering in the Inner City, reveal that poor young women and men of all races share a common set of human desires to get a good education, secure a decent job, fall in love, marry, raise children in a stable home, and earn a salary that provides dignity and is sufficient to support their family. But an array of structural barriers, neighborhood effects, family precedent, and dysfunctional social norms derail them, leading to choices that unwittingly perpetuate their poverty and virtually guarantee the same outcomes for their children.
But whatever regretful choices these parents may have made, Edin’s work also reveals parents’ deep commitment to helping their children build lives that are different and better than their own. It is why many poor parents enter lotteries for public charter schools on the slim chance their child wins a golden ticket. They fight for seats in excellent schools not only so that their children can learn math, science, and the arts, but also because they want us to teach their children the most reliable paths to life success that will allow them to overcome the obstacles they faced as parents.
If we want to break the multi-generational cycle of entrenched poverty and income inequality, we must ensure the next two generations—the children in K–12 schools today and their children—understand the mechanisms that will lead to upward mobility. There is a sequence—education, work, marriage, children (after the age of twenty-one), in that order—that many of us in our own personal lives have chosen to follow because we know it gives us and our children the greatest likelihood to lead the lives of our choosing. We cannot deprive our students of the very knowledge that, if they followed this same series of life choices, they would have a 98 percent probability to advance out of poverty and a real shot towards middle-class success and beyond.
In his 1993 essay about stemming the tide of out-of-wedlock births, Murray opined, “Matters have not yet quite gotten out of hand, but they are on the brink. If we want to act, now is the time.” Since 1993, the national out-of-wedlock birth rate rose from the already catastrophic rate of below 30 percent to more than 40 percent today. And during that time more than twenty million babies of all races were born to unmarried women aged twenty-four and under.
While there are always exceptions of children and single parents who succeeded despite the odds, the vast majority of affected children are suffering the dire consequences of premature family formation. But it is never too late to make things better. The education reform community has a unique role to play because the children of the next generation are in our schools today.
Perhaps the only silver lining in the emergence of the white underclass is that it could empower all of us to recognize that racial bias alone cannot explain the conditions many of us have committed our lives to reversing. That the white community is being devastated by drug abuse and deaths of despair creates an opportunity for a unified effort to address the family fragmentation that threatens our common humanity.
Racism and poverty still matter and must be addressed. But family structure matters monumentally to the ultimate success of all of our children, and ironically may be the best support to empower young people to have the personal agency to overcome racism, poverty, or adversity of any type. Our parents want and need us as education leaders to be the adults in the room, not silenced by political correctness or fear of accusations of moralizing. They want us to talk openly to our students about the best path to achieve the dreams they have for their children. By having the courage to do so, we would be fulfilling the hopes and desires of the parents who have entrusted us with the most cherished responsibility of educating their children.
Let us live up to the highest of their expectations.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
Nine states and the District of Columbia have submitted plans to the U.S. Department of Education to meet their obligations under the Every Student Succeeds Act. And by May 3, seven more will likely do the same. These submissions describe how states will satisfy a number of ESSA’s requirements, including those concerning testing, accountability, and school improvement. This lattermost issue, which seeks to fix—or better yet replace—failing schools, is among the most important. Yet, in this area, these first plans are a very mixed bag.
Under the law, states must identify and take action on two types of troubled schools: those requiring “comprehensive support and improvement” (the lowest achieving 5 percent of Title I schools, plus high schools with low graduation rates), and those that need “targeted improvement” because they routinely fail a particular group such as low-income, minority, or special education students.
ESSA includes criteria states should use for placing schools in these two buckets, but it is intentionally silent on what they should do about them—even when schools require “rigorous intervention” because less substantial corrections, like counseling and professional development, haven’t lead to adequate improvement after a specified period of time (decided by the state, but no more than four years).
This deference to states is a major change from No Child Left Behind, the law that ESSA replaced. Through School Improvement Grants, NCLB only permitted a static set of four improvement models. Over time, however, this mandated menu of options “had no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.”
Learning from this mistake, ESSA requires states to set aside 7 percent of their Title I funds to turn around low-performing schools using “evidence-based improvements” of their choosing. It opens the door to a wide variety of strategies, and specifically authorizes funding to flow through innovative governance structures—not just traditional districts—en route to schools.
Many in the education reform community had hoped that states would take advantage of this flexibility to design new—or at least adopt already existing—innovative and inspired methods of improving failing schools, especially for schools that require “rigorous intervention.” (See, for example, Nelson Smith’s and my recent brief, Leveraging ESSA to Support Quality-School Growth.) And, in this first batch of seventeen plans, seven did just that: Colorado, Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, and Tennessee.
Charter expansion, for example, is a sensible and underused strategy, particularly if states are focused on turning around students’ lives, as well as schools, and more so if charter opportunities are focused in urban areas where success has been best documented. CREDO’s massive 2015 study of urban charter schools, for instance, revealed particularly strong charter performance for “Black, Hispanic, low-income, and special education students in both math and reading.”
Two states, Colorado and New Mexico, specifically list charter expansion as one of their four respective turnaround strategies that local education agencies can use to fix or replace failing schools. Colorado uses the language “conversion to a charter school” and notes that state support is available, and New Mexico calls it a “restart” wherein an LEA decides to “close the school and reopen it under a charter school operator that has been selected through a rigorous state or local authorizer review process.” These are both praiseworthy approaches, but states don’t seem to realize that ESSA allows them to use the Title I set-aside on brand-new charter schools in communities impacted by school failure, not just conversions or restarts.
Then there’s Connecticut. Though it doesn’t expressly mention charter schools, its plan implies that charter expansion and/or conversion is permissible. It states that, if other interventions don’t work, an LEA may, among other things, choose an option in which it “retains authority but enters into a management partnership with an external entity; or...transfers the entire management and oversight of a school to an external entity.”
The second quoted clause from Connecticut’s plan can also be interpreted as suggesting two other innovative strategies that are specifically mentioned in four other state plans: state-turnaround districts, in which control of struggling schools is transferred to the state; and receiverships, where an individual is granted all or most of the powers of a district superintendent and school board. Versions of the former have existed in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Nevada for years, and all three states carried these programs over into their ESSA plans. The potential of such an intervention is evident in studies of Louisiana’s program, which is the oldest of the three, having been around since 2003. A comprehensive 2016 study by The Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, for instance, found strongly positive effects, even while accounting for demographic changes as the city recovered.
As for receiverships, Massachusetts has the most prominent example, in the town of Lawrence, and the state included the intervention in its ESSA plan. Created in 2011, it’s use in Lawrence had, by 2015, “double[d] the number of schools with a median [student growth percentile] above 50 on both ELA and math MCAS…(and) achieved a 14.6 percentage point increase in the 4-year cohort graduation rate (from 52.3 percent in 2011 to 66.9 percent in 2014), and a 4 percentage point decrease in the annual dropout rate (from 8.6 percent to 4.6 percent), after three years of results.”
Finally, “Innovation Zones,” a promising strategy in which local districts keep control of some low-performing schools while giving the schools more resources and increased autonomy, are present in two state plans, Tennessee and Massachusetts. In the former, schools using this model actually outperformed those that were part of the aforementioned state-turnaround district, demonstrating the viability of this approach.
Alas, the other ten states’ school improvement plans comprise language that is, on the whole, vague, empty, and/or unimaginative. These include Arizona, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, and Vermont. Arizona, for example, promises to “conduct an in-depth needs assessment” and “identify possible new bold and innovative interventions and actions,” with no further explanation. Maine’s plan includes “face-to-face school improvement coaching support, increased district support in relation to targeted professional development, and increased financial resources.” And Oregon “will monitor district and school improvement plans and annually adjust levels of supports and interventions based on implementation progress,” as well as “require, at a minimum, annual updates of progress to local school boards and stakeholder groups.”
In sum, seven of the first seventeen state ESSA plans include promising, innovative ways to improve or replace failing schools, but ten of them don’t. If we see a similar pattern with the states that submit plans in September, most of America's failing schools may remain failing for years to come.
On this week's podcast, Checker Finn, Alyssa Schwenk, and Brandon Wright discuss the drafting of an ESSA plan and what comes next for states that recently submitted theirs to the U.S. Department of Education. During the Research Minute, David Griffith examines the long-term effects of same-race teachers.
Amber’s Research Minute
Seth Gershenson et al., “The long-run impacts of same-race teachers,” Institute of Labor Economics (March 2017).
A RAND report last year found that virtually every teacher in America—99 percent of elementary teachers; 96 percent of secondary school—draws upon “materials I developed and/or selected myself” in teaching English language arts. And where are they finding said materials? Mostly Google (94 percent) and Pinterest (87 percent). Thus it is hard to be anything other that cheered by a new RAND report that explores the use of math and ELA materials on EngageNY, “one of the first efforts to create coherent, standards-aligned Open Educational Resource curriculum materials.” Created by New York State, the site features full sets of Common Core-aligned ELA and math curricula for use in K–12 classrooms, all of it available for free.
Looking at usage patterns during the 2014–15 and 2015–16 school years, as well as survey results from the nationally representative American Teacher Panel survey, the authors of this case study want to know who is using EngageNY, which elements are the most popular, how it supports teaching and learning, and what explains the site’s “high uptake.” Unsurprisingly, EngageNY sees heavy use in New York State, however its math and ELA materials were accessed in every state, with particularly high traffic states that have adopted Common Core or similar standards (equally unsurprising). The report reaffirms that math is the breakout hit. “EngageNY mathematics curriculum materials were used at about three times the rate of ELA curriculum materials across the United States,” the authors note. “However, our survey data suggests that ELA teachers may have used EngageNY materials more comprehensively than mathematics teachers.” One significant irritant: the report repeatedly—and mistakenly—refers to Core Knowledge Language Arts, the exceptional early elementary ELA curriculum offered on EngageNY, as the “Common Knowledge Language Arts” program.
The strong uptake of EngageNY is not a simple case of if you build it they will come. School district requirements and recommendations appear to be a prime reason why teachers use it. “Nearly one-half of teachers indicated that their district required use of EngageNY for their ELA and mathematics instruction, and between 80 and 90 percent indicated that their district either required or recommended its use.” Compared with other materials, math teachers were “more likely to indicate that EngageNY provided their students with opportunities to explain and justify their work,” while serving key instructional goals including conceptual understanding, procedural skills, and application to real-life contexts. ELA teachers indicated that EngageNY was more likely to provide students with non-fiction texts of sufficient grade-level complexity, and which use a range of vocabulary and connect literacy instruction to other content than other materials. In short, it beats the heck out of Pinterest.
“Given that state standards and districts appear to be such a large driver of EngageNY, OER providers—and any providers of online instructional materials—should ensure that their materials are clearly aligned with standards and provide explicit evidence in that regard,” the report concludes. Well, sure, but why stop there? The same can and should be said for all curriculum materials that finds its way into American classrooms and in front of children—not just OER, which is a delivery system, nothing more or less. Indeed, while the open nature of EngageNY resources “may encourage their use,” the authors note, “teachers did not cite ‘availability’ more often as an influence for their use of EngageNY compared with other instructional materials.” In other words, the medium is not the message. “Open educational resources (OER) could serve a key role in implementation of state standards by connecting educators with free, standards-aligned online curricula and lesson activities,” the report concludes. OER can also connect educators with free, easily accessible dreck. The key will be a sufficiently sophisticated view of curriculum that valorizes not just “alignment” to standards but quality. That’s not an OER thing, it’s a discernment thing.
SOURCE: By Julia H. Kaufman et al., “Use of Open Educational Resources in an Era of Common Standards: A Case Study on the Use of EngageNY,” RAND Corporation (2017).
As we stress in our recent review of online instructional tools, the adoption of the Common Core State Standards seven years ago led to unprecedented levels of information and resource sharing across states. Technological advancements and a growing movement towards open-source educational resources have further contributed to a huge explosion of choice on the K–12 curricular marketplace. And while choice can be a good thing, many educators remain completely overwhelmed by the vast array of curricular and instructional resources now available.
A new Education Week special report released last month, comprising eight separate articles, aims to help educators “navigate [this] increasingly diverse marketplace of new—and often promising—curricular choices.”
The series kicks off with a helpful overview of several national organizations conducting independent reviews of curricular and instructional materials (such as EdReports, Learning List, and the State Educational Technology Directors Association). It highlights several recent state and district efforts to create curriculum from the ground up, such as Louisiana’s recent partnership with LearnZillion to create a new English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum for the state, and weighs the relative advantages of online versus traditional print resources (such as real-time assessment and student data reporting features).
Additional articles cover: (1) the recent trend towards “open educational resources,” which are “materials for teaching or learning that are either in the public domain or [can] be freely used, changed, or shared with others;” (2) the potential benefits and downsides to online, educational “playlists,” or programs that customize student learning; and (3) tips from educators for vetting online curriculum.
The report concludes by flagging common student data privacy concerns and security “red flags” educators should consider when using online educational apps in classrooms.
As Cory Koedel and Morgan Polikoff conclude in a recent study, “non-trivial gains in student achievement are attainable simply by choosing more effective curriculum materials.” While somewhat random in nature, EdWeek’s collection of articles nonetheless provides educators with helpful information and issues to mull over as they navigate an ever-increasing curriculum market.
SOURCE: “Special Report: Navigating New Curriculum Choices,” Education Week (March 2017).