In the first semester of the 2019–20 school year, the San Diego Unified school district board discovered that 20 percent of Black students had received a D or F grade. In comparison, 7 percent of White students earned the same failing marks.
In the first semester of the 2019–20 school year, the San Diego Unified school district board discovered that 20 percent of Black students had received a D or F grade. In comparison, 7 percent of White students earned the same failing marks. School officials decided that the 13 percent racial disparity was a function of systemic racism, requiring an “honest reckoning as a school district.”
In October, that “reckoning” led the San Diego board to vote unanimously to “interrupt these discriminatory grading practices.” Rather than attempt to replicate the factors empowering the 80 percent of Black students who achieved passing grades, the board’s first action to “be an anti-racist school district” was to dumb down the grading system for all. Under the new protocols, all 106,000 San Diego students are no longer required to hand in their homework on time. Moreover, teachers are now prohibited from factoring a student’s classroom behavior when formulating an academic grade.
Goal should be excellence for all
Imagine how both Black and White students and faculty will internalize the not-so-subtle message of this lowered standard. A local TV station interviewed a White eleventh grade student who enthusiastically voted for these changes and explained why they were necessary for his disadvantaged peers: “...we are seeing that the inequities in our communities are so strong and it is not fair of us to put forth policies that only cater to the students that are able to meet these requirements.”
Read the mission statement of virtually any educational organization, and you will likely find earnest language seeking to attain “equity” by “closing the racial achievement gap.” Instead of seeking educational excellence for all, school reformers have become fixated on erasing disparities, most frequently the underperformance of Black children relative to their White classmates. The problem of course with this color-bound thinking is that achieving “equity” only allows a Black student to reach a average White peer’s potential, not his or her own—maybe higher—potential.
Consider that in 2019, only one third of all 8th grade students scored "Proficient" on the National Assessment of Progress in reading. In each year since the Nation’s Report Card was first administered in 1992, less than half of the nation’s White students in the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades scored NAEP proficient in reading. The sad irony is that closing the Black-White achievement gap would mean Black student outcomes would grow from sub-mediocrity to full-mediocrity.
Despite these facts, school districts across the country are adopting the narrative that racial disparities in academic outcomes pose today’s greatest educational challenge. Such tunnel vision towards problems is usually accompanied by an equally narrow vision towards causality. These educators are reinforcing the flawed belief that every racial disparity must be due to white supremacy and systemic racism, regardless of other factors like declines in stable families or lack of school choice, which may play a far more powerful role in impeding the development of children of all races. The resulting “anti-racist” policies are becoming the unintended, modern day version of the soft bigotry of low expectations.
Real equal opportunity
For the last decade, I ran a network of public charter schools in low-income communities in the heart of the South Bronx and Lower East Side of Manhattan. We were determined to ensure all young scholars, regardless of race, developed a faith in their ability to do hard things. Our goal was for students to believe in themselves, and not be swayed by the false rhetoric that any student of color would be incapable of handling basic requirements—like handing in homework on time—just because of their race.
The American dream is premised on the idea that a young person can become an agent of her or his own destiny. This can only happen if vital mediating institutions like strong families, schools and faith-based organizations demand excellence, and shape the character of this rising generation to build self-sufficiency and resilience. At this moment a growing number of young people are being led to believe that structural barriers around race, class and gender have rigged the system against them, and that they are powerless to compete at the highest level because of immutable characteristics like their race.
Early signs indicate that President-elect Biden and whomever his choice for Secretary of Education will likely prioritize the need to “advance racial equity.” But let’s not adopt “anti-racist” agendas that actually plant the seeds of White superiority and Black inferiority, instead of eliminating them. The antidote to racism is not anti-racism. It is a philosophy of humanism that celebrates and uplifts the inherent dignity in each individual. And the antidote to inequity is not diminished expectations for all. It is equal opportunity, and a belief in each person’s capacity for upward mobility, no matter their race, ethnicity or skin color.
Editor’s note: This article was first published by USA Today.
TIMSS is less well known to most American ed-watchers than NAEP and PISA, perhaps because it comes from a private group called the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), but it does a first-rate job of monitoring, comparing, and explaining the educational performance of fourth- and eighth-graders in dozens of countries in the crucial subjects of math and science. (A companion series from IEA known as PIRLs does the same for literacy.) TIMSS 2019 is now out, the seventh such assessment, and among its many virtues are twenty-four-year trend data for participating countries, including the United States.
In 2019, more than half a million students took part in these tests in sixty-four countries and eight additional jurisdictions. These range from the usual “Asian tigers” and European nations to a number of middle-eastern lands, as well as Chile and the Philippines.
The average scores of American kids, though declining, still ranked in the upper middle range of participating countries in both subjects and at both grade levels—far below the (Asian) leaders, but ahead of many others. That’s not brag-worthy, however, as in every case the U.S. average was well below what TIMSS terms its “high benchmark” at which children don’t simply possess some knowledge, skills, and understanding, but are actually able to apply them.
As for trends, no cause for boasting here, either. Broadly speaking, they resemble what we’ve seen in recent NAEP results: a little worse than last time. In fourth grade math, the U.S. average TIMSS score peaked in 2011 and has declined 6 points since. (The scale runs from 1 to 1000, so 6 points is not a big drop, roughly equivalent to the difference between the average scores of Japan and Taiwan, or the U.S. and Lithuania.) In eighth grade math, the American peak was 2015, with the average 2019 score down 3 points. In fourth grade science, the decline since 2015 was 7 points. And in eighth grade science, it was down 8 points.
Deeper dives into the voluminous data—nearly 600 pages—will prove rewarding on many fronts and is heartily encouraged. But you don’t have to spend long hours to get some highlighted findings that education reformers may find sobering because they document the importance of things that reformers find hard to alter or would just as soon avoid dealing with. For example, in the words of the report authors:
- “Higher average achievement in mathematics and science, at both the fourth and eighth grades, was associated with student having more educational resources in their homes.”
- “Students who began school with stronger literacy and numeracy skills had higher achievement in fourth grade.”
- “Students attending schools with a higher emphasis on academic success had higher average achievement.”
- “Students who attended schools with fewer school discipline problems had higher average achievement…. Eighth grade students in less than safe and orderly schools had substantially lower achievement than those in very safe and orderly schools.”
There’s more, a lot more. And in many respects, TIMSS is more informative than PISA. Rather than appraising the performance of an age group without direct reference to schooling or curriculum, which is basically what PISA does, TIMSS is explicitly tied to a multi-national curricular outline of what kids should learn in school in math and science. Moreover, the TIMSS tests are given to students in the same grades that NAEP tests in (and that ESSA requires states to assess in math and reading). And because it’s on a four-year cycle, the eighth grade pupil cohort that it tested in 2019 was the same cohort it had tested in the same subjects in fourth grade in 2015.
It’s too bad that no individual U.S. states took part this time—as many as nine have done so in past years—and that analysts and policymakers don’t give it the attention it deserves.
So dig in and see for yourself.
SOURCE: Ina V.S. Mullis, Michael O. Martin, Pierre Foy, Dana L. Kelly, and Bethany Fishbein, “TIMSS 2019 International Results in Mathematics and Science,” TIMSS and PIRLS International Study Center (2020).
I became a disciple of E.D. Hirsch, Jr. early in my teaching career for one simple reason. His theories about reading comprehension—and his alone—described precisely what I witnessed every day in my South Bronx fifth grade classroom: children who could “decode” (read the words on the page) but struggled to comprehend the words they read. But Hirsch’s remedy, an elementary school curriculum rich in history, geography, science, and the arts, flew in the face of the more fashionable teaching ideas in which I’d been trained.
Faced with state test scores that showed more than four out of five students falling below proficiency, my school responded the same way as countless other struggling schools, ignoring Hirsch and doubling down on time spent on English language arts, dominated by “reading strategies” instruction and teaching techniques aimed at engaging and motivating students to read more. This playbook reflected a common belief without much evidence to support it that struggling readers would flourish if they were taught to emulate the habits of good readers and writers. We trained them in comprehension “skills” like finding the main idea, visualizing, and making inferences, and gave then ample opportunity to practice for large stretches of time on “high interest” books they chose themselves, while teachers “coached” and “conferenced” with them on comprehension. The approach was elegant, intuitive, appealing, and wrong.
For more than forty years, Hirsch has put forth a different idea. Learning to read with understanding isn’t like learning to ride a bike, an all-purpose skill that can be mastered and applied to any bike. Sure, you’ve got to be able to decode printed text and know what nearly all the words mean, but reading comprehension requires knowing a little (and sometimes a lot) about the topic you’re reading about. This insight has been validated time and again by cognitive science. Ostensibly “weak” readers appear quite strong when reading about familiar topics, while those who score well on standardized tests often struggle when reading about subjects they know nothing about. In other words, reading comprehension isn’t a skill at all and time spent “practicing” it is counterproductive because of the opportunity cost: it’s time not spent learning history, science, literature, art, and music, and other subjects that build the common knowledge base that mature literacy rests upon. The greater your store of “cultural literacy,” the title of Hirsch’s best-known book on the subject, the more likely you are to read with understanding.
Those of us who have advocated for the Hirschean view of reading just received an important bit of evidence to bolster our case. A new study published by Adam Tyner, my colleague at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, along with early childhood research Sarah Kabourek, plumbed data that followed 18,000 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. Not surprisingly, it shows students spend far more time on ELA than any other subject, but also detects “clear, positive, and statistically significant effect on reading improvement” associated with increased time spent on social studies. The pair found no correlation between time spent on ELA and reading gains. Neither were there discernible effects associated with science or art, but this may reflect the way those subjects tend to be taught in elementary school, with an emphasis on “doing” science and art—hands-on, and project-based—as opposed to reading about them. Social studies instruction is likely to be more text-based and to draw broadly from the full range of human experience, exposing children to other lands and cultures, and contributing rich vocabulary and background knowledge, which are the wellspring of language proficiency.
The study’s most significant finding may also be its most overlooked: Lower-income students and those from non-English-speaking homes appear to benefit the most from additional social studies instruction. This is exactly what we should expect. Children from affluent homes are far more likely to be exposed to a broad range of knowledge, experiences, and vocabulary in their daily lives via out-of-school enrichment, rich dinner table conversation with educated parents, and other sources. By contrast, low-income children are far more likely to be “school-dependent” learners. If they don’t get it in school, they may not get it at all. This is another point Hirsch has made all along that has been deeply misunderstood: A cognitively rich curriculum that exposes children to the broadest possible range of knowledge, ideas, and human experience strikes a powerful blow for education equity.
One of the hardest things for educated men and women to do is imagine what it’s like to read without it background knowledge. Like the fish that doesn’t realize it’s in water, literate Americans are swimming in knowledge, allusions, and idioms that enliven their discourse and resolves ambiguities. A simple example is the word “shot.” Very young children can “read” the word, but it means something very different on a basketball court, in a doctor’s office, or when the repairman uses it to describe your refrigerator. Speakers and writers assume their listeners and readers know enough to supply the proper context and fill in the gaps.
This is exactly what I saw all those years ago with my South Bronx fifth graders. Even a simple reading passage was like a game of Jenga, with every block in the tower a bit of background knowledge or vocabulary. Pull out a few and the tower stands. Pull out one too many and it collapses. Sense and meaning are lost. My students were no less intelligent, eager, or capable than more affluent kids a few subway stops away. But we were not giving them what they needed to succeed: access to the broad range of knowledge that literate speakers and writers assume they know. By limiting their reading to the topics and interests they already possessed, we imposed a form of illiteracy on them.
Our long and ineffective “language arts block,” which dominated the school day, was designed to teach them what good readers do. We taught then the habits of effective reading—“good readers make predictions” and “mind movies”—and encouraged them to practice those ersatz “skills” on books they choose themselves. But they continued to struggle and we should have known why.
They weren’t missing what good readers do. They were missing what good readers know.
Editor’s note: This article was first published by Forbes.
“Good teaching is rocket science,” write Jim Short and Stefanie Hirsh in a new report from the Carnegie Corporation, titled The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning.
Houston, we have a problem…
American universities award about 2,000 Ph.D.s in physics every year, a number roughly equivalent to 0.0005 percent of the nation’s teacher workforce. If good teaching is rocket science, we must abandon, now and forever, any hope of improving student outcomes at scale. Teachers don’t need flattery about how their jobs are impossibly challenging. They need their jobs to be made less challenging.
Happily, The Elements contradicts completely those five words, offering copious sense and practical wisdom on ways that we might make good teaching more consistently and effectively doable by 3.7 million mostly conscientious and diligent men and women in front of American classrooms. The big idea on offer is that school and district leaders, curriculum developers, and teacher professional-development providers should promote and prioritize curriculum-based professional learning for teachers as the linchpin of any attempt to drive student achievement. Hear, hear!
“The United States spends an estimated $18 billion on professional development programs every year, and teachers spend more than a week’s worth of time participating in them,” they note. “But research shows that most of these efforts do not achieve substantial positive impacts on teacher performance or student outcomes.” The reason for this isn’t hard to divine. Most professional development consists of what the report correctly describes as “short-term, isolated experiences” rather than the “ongoing, content-focused, job-embedded professional learning that can help teachers and their students excel.”
The “elements” referred to in the report’s title is a riff on the familiar periodic table, designed to represent graphically the components of strong and consistent professional learning. There are “core design features,” including curriculum; “structural design features,” such as collective participation and time; and “essential” elements of leadership, resources, and time. Focusing teacher effort on what gets taught and teaching it effectively is one of those ideas that sounds intuitive and obvious, yet is at odds with the experiences and practices of most teachers.
The authors note “more than half of U.S. teachers craft curriculum for their students, either by borrowing from multiple sources or creating their own materials. Nearly one in three say their principals encourage them to plan lessons from scratch.” This actually understates things considerably. A 2016 RAND Corporation study, for example, found that nearly every U.S. teacher—99 percent of elementary teachers; 96 percent in secondary school—draws upon “materials I developed and/or selected myself” in teaching English language arts. Among elementary teachers, 94 percent reported using Google to find lessons; 87 percent search Pinterest. The numbers are virtually the same for math. This hasn’t happened by accident. We have trained and acculturated teachers to conflate mass customization and individualization with “best practice.” We also assume teachers prefer it that way. These are some of the most unexamined shibboleths in teaching.
Curriculum-based professional learning “places the focus squarely on curriculum. It is rooted in ongoing, active experiences that prompt teachers to change their instructional practices, expand their content knowledge, and challenge their beliefs,” Short and Hirsh write. The report privileges “inquiry-based” and “student-centered” forms of learning for students and therefore teachers, and the degree to which these things are something new; their provenance is over 100 years old. And there is still plenty of room for teacher-led instruction, particularly in elementary grades. Those teachers just as surely need their jobs ordered and focused on their curriculum, too. But it’s critical not to lose sight of the forest for the trees: The vision of professional learning proposed here would be a watershed improvement compared to what we inflict on teachers at present.
When teachers are working from an established curriculum, not creating lessons from scratch, the likelihood of success goes up. When their professional learning is driven by curriculum, it becomes more focused and intentional. When schools, districts, and professional-development providers focus their efforts in support, the effects can only be heightened. It’s a simple matter of addition by subtraction: Time not spent planning lessons from scratch (and attending busywork professional development) means increased bandwidth to study student work, anticipate and plan for student misconceptions, and to develop the kind of deep subject matter expertise that enables teachers to respond creatively and flexibly in the moment.
We should be able to do this. It’s not rocket science.
SOURCE: Jim Short and Stefanie Hirsh, The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning, Carnegie Corporation (November 2020).
The pandemic has now disrupted two consecutive school years, and its effects are certain to linger for years to come. Unfortunately, some students will be more impacted than others. The long-standing achievement gaps facing low-income and minority students, as well as English language learners and students with disabilities, have likely been exacerbated by school closures and uneven remote learning opportunities. To close these gaps, schools will need solid data on how much students have—or haven’t—learned since the start of the pandemic.
Back in April, NWEA used summer learning loss data to estimate the potential academic impacts of Covid-19 disruptions. Now that many schools have administered its fall 2020 diagnostic assessments, NWEA is back with additional research that sheds more light on student achievement and learning loss during the pandemic. Their dataset includes nearly 4.4 million U.S. students in grades three through eight who took NWEA’s MAP Growth assessments administered both remotely and in person this fall, as well as data from previous years. This testing sample represents just under one tenth of the approximately 50 million U.S. public school students. (For more on data and methodology, see the technical appendix.)
It’s important to acknowledge at the outset that there are some limitations to this brief. The authors note that “student groups especially vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic were more likely to be missing” from their data. As a result, the findings outlined below are not necessarily representative of American students at large. NWEA found that a larger fraction of missing students were racial minorities, students with lower achievement in the fall of 2019, and students who attended schools with higher concentrations of economically-disadvantaged students. In addition, students who were tested in the fall of 2020 demonstrated higher average baseline achievement scores and were demographically different, meaning they were racially less diverse and attended higher socioeconomic schools than students who did not take an assessment. Taken together, these findings indicate that a large chunk of vulnerable students weren’t tested this fall, aren’t included in NWEA’s data, and are very likely falling through cracks. As a result, the serious impacts of the pandemic on student achievement are potentially being underestimated.
All that being said, there is still plenty of useful data in NWEA’s study. To start, the authors compared how students in grades three through eight scored in fall 2019 compared to students in the same grades in fall 2020. Findings indicate that students scored 5 to 10 percentile points lower in math this fall. And while they performed similarly in reading—median percentiles for this fall were similar to those of students in the same grade last fall—there was also initial evidence of small declines that were disproportionately concentrated among Hispanic and Black students in upper elementary grades.
To determine if there have been learning gains since the pandemic started, the authors examined students who were tested in winter 2020—prior to the onset of Covid-19 shutdowns—and then tested again in the fall of 2020. They then compared the math and reading growth patterns they observed in 2020 to growth patterns in the same grade levels during winter and fall of 2019. On average, students grew in both subjects across all grade levels, with the exception of math in grades five and six. But a smaller proportion of students showed positive math growth in 2020 than in 2019. In fact, nearly twice as many students moved down a quintile in math achievement compared to the previous year. Reading growth was about the same in both years.
To close out the brief, the authors note that lower-than-average gains in math indicate that students are falling behind and need intervention. In addition, the lower reading scores for Hispanic and Black students in certain grades, along with the underrepresentation of these students in fall 2020 data, should make connecting with students and providing immediate support a top priority for schools. To aid in these efforts, state and federal governments will need to provide additional funding. Gathering more and better data will also be crucial. The authors recommend that districts and states collect and report data on learning opportunities, academic achievement, and students’ social and emotional well-being.
SOURCE: Megan Kuhfeld, Beth Tarasawa, Angela Johnson, Erik Ruzek, and Karyn Lewis, “Learning during COVID-19: Initial findings on students’ reading and math achievement and growth,” NWEA (November 2020).
On this week’s podcast, Katharine Stevens, visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, joins Mike Petrilli and David Griffith to discuss President-elect Biden’s childcare and pre-K plans. On the Research Minute, Adam Tyner examines how college instructors’ attractiveness affect their student evaluations.
Amber's Research Minute
J. Jobu Babina, Andrew Hussey, Alex Nikolsko-Rzhevskyyc, & David A. Taylord, “Beauty Premiums Among Academics,” Economics of Education Review (August 2020).
If you listen on Apple Podcasts, please leave us a rating and review - we'd love to hear what you think! The Education Gadfly Show is available on all major podcast platforms.
- “How teachers’ unions are influencing decisions on school reopenings.” —Education Week
- The closures of preschools during the pandemic will leave many children unprepared for Kindergarten, especially those from low-income backgrounds. —USA Today
- Research consistently finds that students of color and those from low-income families have suffered steep learning losses, often worse than White and wealthier peers. —Washington Post
- District schools should follow the lead of their cost-effective charter school peers, as research shows they produce better results than peers despite receiving less per-pupil funding. —Washington Post
- We should be cautious about reopening schools and consider how limited the existing data is on virus transmission rates at schools. —FutureEd
- Thanks to federal aid, states have been able to fund schools fairly well during the crisis. But future budget challenges could bring difficult spending cuts. —Chalkbeat
- Naomi Schaefer Riley reviews Jeff Hobbs’s Show Them You’re Good, which profiles teen boys from different backgrounds entering adulthood and reveals how the “process by which boys become men in modern America is broken.” —AEI
- We need to mobilize a national army of tutors, much as the U.K. has, to help the students who have fallen behind during the pandemic. —Marc Tucker
- “California Assembly leaders press for all districts to resume in-school teaching in the spring.” —EdSource